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Exercise Headaches


Disease: Exercise Headaches Exercise Headaches
Category: Neurological diseases
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Disease Definition:

These headaches occur during or after sustained, strenuous exercise. Tennis, swimming, rowing, weightlifting and running are the activities most commonly associated with exercise headaches.

Exercise headaches are divided into two categories. Primary exercise headaches are usually harmless, because they are not connected to any underlying problems. However, secondary exercise headaches are usually caused by an underlying and serious problem with the brain, such as a tumor or bleeding.

About 1 in every 100 people at some point in their lives will have at least one exercise headache. Most of the exercise headaches are of the primary type, which are harmless. However, a higher proportion of exercise headaches are being linked to underlying problems, due to improvements in imaging technology.

Medication can usually prevent primary exercise headaches. However, secondary exercise headaches may require emergency medical attention because they could be quite serious.

Work Group:

Prepared by: Scientific Section

Symptoms, Causes


Exercise headaches, which occur during or after strenuous exercise, are normally described as throbbing, and in most cases, affect both sides of the head.

Secondary exercise headaches could cause neck rigidity, double vision and vomiting.

Primary exercise headaches usually last between 5 minutes to 48 hours, and secondary exercise headaches last at least a day, but can linger for several days or longer.


Although the exact cause of primary exercise headaches is unknown, one theory says that strenuous exercise dilates blood vessels inside the skull.

Some of the underlying problems that cause secondary exercise include:



  • Sinus infection
  • Cancerous or non-cancerous tumors
  • Intermittent obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid flow
  • Reduced blood flow in the arteries feeding the heart
  • Abnormalities in a blood vessel leading to or within the brain
  • Bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin membranes that cover the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage)





In order to help prevent exercise headaches, one may be suggested medications, in case no underlying structural or vascular problem is causing it. In case exercise headaches are predictable, one could take the medications an hour or two before a scheduled event, such as a hike at high altitude or a tennis match.

However, the person may want to take the preventive medicine every day in case exercise headaches are unpredictable or frequent. Indomethacin, which is an anti-inflammatory drug and propranolol, which is a blood pressure medication, are the most commonly used preventive drugs.


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