Exertional Headache

Exercise-Induced Headache—Benign or Ominous?

Exertional headache can be a relatively minor thing, in which case it is called benign exertional headache, or it can represent something more serious. Since no one can tell the difference by just looking at you or by hearing about your symptoms, it's best to seek medical evaluation if you have exercise-induced headaches.

Usually this headache is a pulsating or throbbing headache lasting up to two days, brought on by exercise or strenuous physical activity. The headache can occur during or after the activity, and is more likely to occur in hot weather or at high altitude. Occasionally this headache occurs as what is called a thunderclap headache, which means that it strikes suddenly as a severe headache without any warning.

You should see a doctor the first time an exertional headache happens—it can mimic other disorders that are not benign. And you should definitely seek care if you have a thunderclap headache, which may be warning you of something ominous.

Most of the time, exertional headaches are nothing serious, but it is better to be safe than sorry. Hydrating before exercise may help prevent this headache. If it does not, your doctor may be able to recommend treatment.

by Christina Peterson, M.D.