Exercise Headache – Types, Causes, and Treatment

Exercise headache is triggered by physical activity, ranging from a swift walk to strenuous exercise, person to person. Exercise headache is further divided into two categories:

  1. Primary
  2. Secondary

1. Primary exercise headache

This is primarily caused due to some sort of physical activity and has little to no harmful effects, typically felt on both sides of the head but is also felt on one side of head and top of head. This can also be easily treated and prevented using medication. 


Your head, neck, and scalp muscles require more blood to meet their oxygen requirements while you are working out. This leads to vasodilation in the blood vessels of the head leading towards a headache.


Primary headache is usually benign and mostly responds to over-the-counter analgesics. Indomethacin is the most commonly prescribed drug for an exercise headache. This takes usually 30 mins to an hour before exercise.

2. Secondary exercise headache

This headache has an underlying cause and unlike primary exercise headache, this usually lasts a couple of days and might as well persists for weeks at a stretch. Secondary headache is mostly experienced on both sides of the head but is also felt on one side of head.

 Symptoms of secondary exercise headache:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Congestion
  • Neck stiffness
  • Blurred vision

Causes of secondary exercise headache:

There can be several causes for an episode.

1) Dehydration:

Headache is the first symptom that appears due to dehydration. During exercise, you sweat a lot, thus lose more fluid than you’re taking.


Other symptoms involved are:

  • Decrease urine output
  • Dry skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures


  • Staying hydrated during the exercise
  • Taking plenty of fluid before and after the workout
  • Energy drinks contain high amounts of electrolytes and can help overcome dehydration fairly quickly

2) Heatstroke

Headache can develop if you’ve been working out in the sun for too long. You can avoid an exercise headache in this case by using a hat or cap to protect your face and head against the direct sun. Also, you can use a spray bottle to spray water on your face at regular intervals during exercise.

3) Hypoglycemia

When you work out for too long, your energy reserves might start depleting as you consume all the glucose and your blood sugar levels might drop too low.


  • Feeling of extreme hunger
  • Tremors
  • Blurry vision
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of coordination


  • Take a good source of glucose like juice or any other drink immediately
  • Take a healthy meal an hour or two before exercising

4) Not in shape

When your workout involves head and neck muscles and you’re working out after a very long time, you are not in shape. Your muscles in the head and neck might tense up and develop a headache.



  • Take over-the-counter analgesics to relieve the pain
  • A muscle relaxant can also help release the tension in the muscles

5) High altitude

At high altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is low and your oxygen demand increases. If you do exercise at any such place, you have a high chance of developing a headache as oxygen supply to the brain is decreased during exertion, resulting in a headache.


  • Discontinue the exercise
  • Inhale deeply and take some rest
  • The headache may subside after this, if it doesn’t you can always take an over-the-counter analgesic

Some other causes that might be responsible for an Exercise Headache are as follows:

  1. Subarachnoid Hemorrhage
  2. Tumor in the brain
  3. Obstruction of CSF
  4. Sinusitis
  5. Arteritis

All these conditions might be present at all times in the individual but any form of exertion can aggravate the condition and lead to a headache.

When to consult a doctor?

If you develop a headache due to exertion or while working out and it doesn’t go away with an anti-inflammatory drug, You should see a physician as this might indicate an underlying condition. Also, primary exercise headache lasts only a couple of days while secondary headache can prolong as per the underlying cause and might need immediate medical attention in cases such as subarachnoid hemorrhage, CSF obstruction, and tumors.


Why do I get a headache every time I exercise?

The blood vessels to your skull and brain dilate when you exercise, to provide more oxygen to your brain. This results in a Headache.

I developed a headache after exercise, it won’t go away even after 4 days. What should I do?

If your headache doesn’t go away after 2 days of onset, you should consult a doctor. This can be indicative of a serious underlying illness.

When should I be worried about an exercise headache?

If you get a headache every time you exercise and it won’t go even after a couple of days despite taking analgesics. In this case, you should consult a doctor.

What can be the possible causes of a secondary exercise headache?

There can be several underlying conditions that may lead to an Exercise Headache:

  1. Dehydration
  2. Hypotension
  3. Hypoglycemia
  4. Heatstroke
  5. High Altitude
  6. Not in form/shape
  7. Subarachnoid hemorrhage
  8. Tumor in the brain
  9. Obstruction of CSF
  10. Sinusitis
  11. Arteritis
Last medically reviewed on August 2, 2021.