If you’ve ever had a sudden, severe headache that occurs immediately after working out to near muscle failure, then chances are good that you’ve experienced an exertion headache. These occur commonly in athletes and bodybuilders after incredibly strenuous workouts, but the good news is that there are a few simple ways to help prevent them.
The Scientific Explanation for an Exertion Headache
Exercise-induced headaches are actually quite common, but they occur more often in individuals who tend to push their bodies to the absolute limit. They usually strike following workouts that require compound leg movement, such as squats or leg presses, that are performed repeatedly – nearly to the point of failure. Toward the end of the workout, athletes may experience an intense, piercing headache in the back of the neck or temples. Scientifically, this is caused by dilating blood vessels in the brain beyond their normal capacity, which puts pressure on the nerves that cover the brain (called meninges). Even after the headache subsides, the meninges remain sensitive and prone to subsequent headaches for quite some time.
What Causes Them?
There is no one cause for exertion headaches; often, they come as the result of a combination of factors. Some of these include, but are not limited to:
- Holding your breath – This causes your blood pressure to spike, which in turn dilates blood vessels in your brain.
- Too much weight – Attempting to lift too much weight can also cause your blood pressure to spike significantly.
- Improper neck position – Failing to keep your spine in a neutral position can put pressure on your carotid artery, in turn trapping blood in the vessels in your brain.
- Dehydration – Failing to properly hydrate makes your blood thicker.
- Increased heart rate – This forces blood through your blood vessels faster.
In most cases, an exertion headache is often the result of at least two (if not more) of these causes.
Preventing the Headaches
Now that you know what causes an exertion headache, you can use preventative measures to stop them before they occur. Make sure that you are drinking enough water so that your urine is clear or only slightly yellow, and practice breathing techniques and be aware of the times when you may be holding your breath. What’s more, you should consciously keep your head straight during your workouts. Finally, the best way to prevent headaches involves conditioning your body along with interval training. This helps you develop an efficient cardiovascular system that can handle the stress of intense workouts.
If you experience an exertion headache at any point, stop your training for the day. The sooner you can decrease your blood pressure, the more you can lessen the duration and severity of the headache. If you experience these headaches often, a medical evaluation may be in order to rule out other causes such as an aneurism or a slipped disc. Ibuprofen can help with any swelling of the meninges, and a rest period of one week can help prevent future headaches from occurring.
An exertion headache is extremely painful, and in some cases, it can take you out of the game for quite some time. The best way to treat them is to prevent them in the first place by staying hydrated, remaining conscious of your breathing patterns and head position, and conditioning your body to handle the stress.