A 2013 study published in The Journal of Headache and Pain revealed that 38 percent of the participants reported having had migraines as a result of or in association with exercise. More than half of these participants stopped their chosen sport or exercise to reduce or eliminate their migraines.
While exercise can trigger headaches and migraines, there are also studies that indicate it may also help reduce migraines. As published in Cephalalgia in 2011, a study shows that people who exercised for 40 minutes three times a week experienced a greater reduction in migraines than people who followed a relaxation program, and almost as much as those who took topiramate (a preventive migraine medication) daily.
Experts can’t tell for sure why exercise can help relieve migraines for some but also cause headaches for others. There are a number of possible headache triggers though.
Below are some reasons why you may be experiencing headaches as a result of your athletic activities.
- Pressure – When you hold your breath while exerting yourself, a pressure is created going from your chest to your brain via your venous (vein) system. This is known as the internal jugular vein valve incompetence (IJVVI). You’re not supposed to hold your breath when exercising, but sometimes you can’t help it, especially when you are maneuvering a really difficult move. The pressure this creates can cause a headache.
- Temperature and Altitude – For those who have already experienced headaches associated with physical activity, exercising in hot weather and at high altitude also seems to increase incidences of migraines.
- Inadequate Warm-up – Sudden intense exercise without adequate warm-up has also been known as a migraine trigger.
- Stress and Inadequate Sleep – Lack of sleep can trigger migraine proteins. The combined effect of stress and sleep deprivation is known to trigger headaches, and even more so when you engage is strenuous exercise when you are sleep-deprived.
- Sudden Movement and Turns – Rotating your body quickly, turning your head suddenly, or bending are also triggering factors.
- Intense Exercise – Jumping into sudden, vigorous exercise may also trigger headaches. This could be due to a decrease in sugar levels or elevation of blood pressure.
- Confluence of Factors – A combination of too much sun, heat, humidity, exhaustion, and dehydration plus any or all of the above can lead to brutal migraine.
Subtypes of athlete headaches
During a 1994 study involving 129 subjects, migraine cases were classified into four categories. The percentages of each sports-related headache found were:
- Sports-related or effort migraine – 9%
This type occurs shortly after intense sports activity such as sprinting or heavy weightlifting. Substantial headaches that are associated with continuous aerobic effort last for more than 1 hour. Possible triggers are increases in intracranial pressure during these activities. Other triggers include insufficient warm-up, extreme temperature, dehydration, hypoglycemia, and exhaustion.
- Trauma-triggered migraine – 6%
This is a temporary disturbance of brain function triggered by mild blows to the head or traumatic brain injury. Occurs mainly among men in contact sports.
- Effort-exertion headache – 60%
This a pulsating headache that comes out of nowhere in the middle of an intense workout. This can last from five minutes to 48 hours. The probable cause is increased pressure on the blood vessels in the brain.
- Post-traumatic headache – 22%
This is a secondary headache that develops within 7 days after head trauma or after regaining consciousness following a traumatic head injury.
Common sports that can induce headaches and migraines:
- Ice Hockey
Recent research shows that headaches, exertion migraine, tension-type headaches and many more share a common pathway which is the lower brainstem.
The pain associated with a headache does not originate from the brain itself as there are no nerves that give rise to the sensation of pain in the brain. In fact, a surgeon can cut brain tissue in a patient who is awake without the patient feeling the knife.
Rather, headaches stem from the tissue and structures around the skull and upper neck.
Benefits of Physiotherapy for Headaches
Manual therapy provided by a trained clinician on the upper neck joints can often alter the pain pathway. It usually takes only 4-5 interventions to reduce headache symptoms significantly.
We also employ a physiotherapy-based approach called the Mulligan Concept. This therapy offers promising new results in treating pain-related conditions, including neck-related headaches. The Mulligan Concept applies passive end-of-range overpressure or stretching, which is delivered completely without pain.
If headaches are causing significant disruption to your life, or you need to be weaned from medication, book an appointment with our trained clinician Mr. Leo Hyun to discuss how manual therapy techniques may be able to provide relief from your symptoms and address the true cause of headaches.
*Please note, content within this article is for educational purposes only and treatment and advice mentioned may not be suited for everyone. Please consult a team member at the Brisbane Spine Clinic or your General Practitioner for specific advice.