Headaches can be painful, throbbing experiences that derail your to-do list and make you feel irritable. And if you're super conscious about what you put in your body, you might wonder whether working out with a headache can provide an alternative to popping some pain medication.
The answer depends on the kind of headache.
In some cases, gentle exercise can help loosen your muscles and alleviate a mild headache. But if your headache persists, grows more severe or if you're prone to migraines, it's best to take a break from the gym and rest up.
Read more: How to Ease Muscle Soreness After a Workout
How Exercise Affects Headaches
Headaches can either feel like either a sharp pain, dull ache or throbbing across specific regions of the head or in an isolated area, and they're categorized into several different types, including cluster headaches, migraines or tension headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some people can also experience chronic daily headaches, cough headaches or exercise headaches. They're largely individual and can be caused by numerous factors like alcohol, stress, lack of sleep or skipped meals. Exercise can also trigger a headache in some individuals, according to Peter Abaci, MD, who specializes in pain treatment.
"Physical exertion from aerobic activity or even weight-lifting can precipitate a throbbing type headache, in some cases, that typically calms down after several minutes or a few hours," Dr. Abaci says. "If the headache persists for much longer than that, then consulting with your physician as a next step is recommended."
Generally, though, it's safe to exercise with a mild headache, Dr. Abaci says. In some cases, exercise can even help alleviate headache symptoms by loosening the tension in your muscles and reducing the pain or eliminating the ache completely.
Read more: How to Relieve a Headache in 10 Minutes
Exercise and Migraines
If you're prone to migraines, though, you'll want to avoid exercising with a headache, Dr. Abaci says. Migraines are generally longer lasting (4 to 72 hours) and extremely painful, accompanied by symptoms like nausea, light sensitivity or increased thirst, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Especially for migraine-prone people that don't hit the gym regularly, exercise is a common migraine trigger, according to a September 2018 study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain. Exercising with a migraine can also be potentially dangerous, as these headaches typically cause sensitivity or fatigue, placing you at higher risk of injury.
If your headache worsens with exercise, dial down the intensity or take a rest day all together. However, if your headache comes on during your work out, take a break and perform some slow, deep-breathing exercises (see below), Dr. Abaci says. Drink plenty of water and, if necessary, take an over-the-counter pain medicine to help reduce the symptoms.
The Best Way to Exercise With a Headache
However, if what you're experiencing is a mild headache and you still want to hit the gym, consider taking some preventative measures beforehand. Give yourself an extended warm-up to help prevent a surge of blood flow toward certain regions of your head and neck, says Dr. Abaci.
Loosening up your neck and shoulder muscles with gentle, dynamic stretches can also help decrease the chances of your muscles getting overly-tensed. (Think: shoulder rolls and gentle side-to-side neck stretches.)
Make sure you're well hydrated before your sweat session and limit alcohol intake, especially the night before. Dehydration, which is generally worsened by alcohol, can contribute to exertion-induced headaches, so if you've had anything to drink the night before, take it easy in the gym.
Breathing Exercises for Headaches
While it's not a guarantee, deep breathing exercises can help manage or alleviate headache pain, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). If you feel a headache coming on, the foundation recommends trying this simple deep breathing exercise:
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen, right under your ribs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose and pull your breath down toward your stomach, pushing your abdomen out, filling your lungs completely.
- Exhale slowly, pulling your stomach in toward your spine and actively think about relaxing.
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercises can also help alleviate headache symptoms, according to the AMF. PMR involves actively tensing and then relaxing different muscles across the body. Over time, practicing PMR can help you identify and release tense muscles that may contribute to headache.
Even just visualizing relaxing scenes can help manage pain, according to the AMF. Testing and practicing these various relaxation methods can help you find the best techniques for you, which you can then use whenever headache strikes.