Exertion Headaches

Ever been at the gym and all of a sudden feel a PIERCING HEADACHE? Many athletes will begin to experience this chronic problem each time they begin a workout and can’t figure out why.

We always advise that you see your doctor about any kind of pain like this, but its more than likely you’re experiencing what is known as an exertional headache. Usually an intense, sudden pain at the back or sides of the head. It may last a couple seconds, or can persist days after it begins.
The exact cause of an exertion headache in unknown, but there are some common symptom patterns that can help determine an accurate diagnosis. For many athletes, once it become a problem, the headaches will return every time the athlete begins performing movements such as overhead lifting, pull-ups and burpees. Most athletes will say the headaches begin in the occipital area (back of the head) then migrate to an area described as “behind the eye.” This is distinctive of tissue restrictions in the trapezius and sub occipital muscles. The theory is once these upper cervical muscles become contracted, it restricts vascular structures and/or causes a peripheral nerve entrapment.

What can I do to avoid an Exertion headache?

  • Hydrate. You always want to make sure you are hydrated before, during and after your workouts.
  • Don’t hold your breath while lifting! Holding your breath causes blood pressure to rise, which can result in a headache.
  • Don’t tilt your head back while lifting. Doing this causes neck muscles to tighten and blocks blood flow to and from the brain.
  • Stretch neck muscles to allow for proper posture and range of motion while lifting.
  • Have your massage therapist treat the sub-occipital muscles and advise on home care exercises to address tension in the upper cervical spine.
  • Stop taking caffeine which can cause headaches while working out.

What to do if I keep getting headaches?

Discontinue the exercise immediately! You should always go to your doctor to make sure it’s not something more serious. When that’s cleared up, you will most likely have to take some time off until the headaches have totally disappeared; anywhere from 2 weeks to a month. You can then slowly resume your workouts. Start with exercises that are much lighter than before the headaches began, and SLOWLY build back up. If you start up too quickly or too intensely chances are the headaches will only return. And be sure to add in massage with a lot of stretching to the neck muscles (ensure proper blood flow), as this will decrease your chances of re-occurrence.