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What’s Causing Your Exertion Headaches?

woman getting done with exercising and working out, causing an exertion headache
Exertion headaches can be tough to deal with. If you do strenuous work for a living, this type of headache can turn every day into one full of pain and suffering. Even if you don’t do laborious work for a living, exertion headaches can make it hard to get enough exercise to stay healthy.

One big problem with exertion headaches is that it can be hard to track down the actual cause of the headaches. Without knowing the cause of your headaches, doctors will often shrug and offer you pain relievers to try to deal with the symptoms. However, medications come with their problems. They are hard on your body and can cause significant side effects–including medication overuse headaches.

If you can track down the cause of your exertion headaches, you might be able to prevent these headaches so you can avoid relying so heavily on medications.

Activities That Trigger Exertion Headaches

People can get exertion headaches from many types of activities. Recognized causes of exertion headaches include:

  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Running or another aerobic exercise
  • Having sexual intercourse
  • Straining on the toilet
  • Weightlifting

Doctors blame activities that compress or tense the abdominal muscles as the main culprit for exertion headaches.

Exertion headaches are often known as exercise headaches, and they’re so common among weightlifters that they are also sometimes called weightlifters’ headaches.

Exertion Headache Symptoms

Not everyone has the same exertion headache symptoms. However, some common symptoms reported with exertion headache include:

  • Neck pain or rigidity
  • Moderate or intense pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Throbbing headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Vision effects like blind spots and double vision
  • Light sensitivity
  • Loss of consciousness

While some distinguish between the symptoms as relating to primary or secondary exertion headaches (more on this in a moment), it’s not always clear this is the case. Primary exertion headaches may cause mainly the first three symptoms, with other symptoms relating to secondary exertion headaches. The distinction is not clear enough to allow differential diagnosis based on symptoms alone, so doctors rely on other tools to make the diagnosis.

Primary and Secondary Exertion Headaches

Primary exertion headaches occur with no other apparent cause.

Another condition causes secondary exertion headaches. Because some severe conditions are potentially associated with exertion headaches, talking to your doctor about them is essential. You should try to eliminate potential causes of secondary exertion headaches such as:

  • Vein blockage in the brain
  • Tumor
  • Cyst
  • Bleeding around the brain
  • Sinus infection
  • Obstruction of cerebrospinal fluid flow

Eliminating these potential causes might include tests like an MRI or angiogram, including a computed tomography angiogram (CTA).

If your doctor eliminates these serious causes, they might describe your exertion headaches as “primary exertion headaches.” In other words, exertion headaches that don’t have any other reason. No one knows exactly what causes these headaches. The most commonly accepted explanation is that exercise causes the blood vessels in the brain to expand. The expanded blood vessels put pressure on your brain, which causes the pain.

TMJ Could Be Causing Your Exertion Headaches

Once you’ve eliminated the most severe potential causes of secondary exertion headaches, consider other possibilities before settling for the explanation that you have primary exertion headaches. One possible explanation of your exertion headaches is temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD).

TMJ can cause headaches because it leads to additional strain in your head and neck muscles. It’s common to clench your teeth when performing strenuous exercise, especially those that require the use of your core muscles. Clenching the jaw helps stabilize the core, but if your jaw is unbalanced or otherwise in an unhealthy configuration, the strain in your jaw and neck muscles can be significant. Note that your jaw muscles stretch up to your temples, anchoring on either side of your head just behind your eyes.

TMJ can also trigger migraines. That’s because the source of many migraines, the trigeminal nerve, is the same nerve that controls jaw muscles and carries pain signals from them to the brain. TMJ can overwhelm the trigeminal nerve, triggering the release of compounds that set off migraines. The similarity of symptoms means that many people experiencing exertion headaches likely have exertion migraines, which might be due to TMJ.

Help for Headaches in Woburn, MA

If you are dealing with headaches and your current treatment is not giving you the results you hope for, it might be time to consider other possibilities. One commonly overlooked cause of headaches and migraines is TMJ. At Divine Smiles, TMJ dentist Dr. Ryan Clancy can evaluate the health of your jaw system to determine whether TMJ might be causing exertion headaches and other headaches.

Please call (781) 396-8558 or use our online contact form to schedule an appointment at Divine Smiles today.

By Ryan M. Clancy, DMD, MAGD, LVIF, FPFA, FIAPA | February 24th, 2022 | TMJ

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