How to stop headaches or migraines during or after running:
Headaches or migraines which start during or after running are fairly common and can ruin the “running experience” for many. Exercise induced headaches occur in about a third of athletes, including runners. In most cases, these headaches or migraines can be cleared with the correct management or treatment. Taking drugs to ease these headaches doesn’t offer a cure because they are not actually addressing the underlying cause of the headache or migraine.
Very rarely, running induced headaches are a sign of a more serious underlying medical problem. A sudden onset of a severe headache during or after running, which is a new occurrence should be checked out immediately by contacting your GP or by going to your local Accident and Emergency Department, to rule out anything more sinister.
If vomiting, loss of consciousness or double vision occurs with a headache, you should certainly also seek immediate medical attention.
The causes and solutions for headaches during or after running:
1) Poor running posture and tense shoulders:
To improve your running posture, imagine that there is a helium balloon attached to the top of the back of your head while you’re running, pulling your body gently upwards. Your eyes should be fixed on a point directly ahead of you, at eye level and you should avoid looking downwards. Try to relax your shoulders throughout your run.
2) Tight headgear:
A tight ponytail, headband or hat can trigger headaches. Always run with loose headgear.
It is a well know fact that one of the first symptoms of dehydration is headaches. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids before and after running. If your run is under one hour or if it’s cool outside, drinking fluids during your run isn’t necessary. On humid or hotter days however or during those longer runs, it’s essential to hydrate during your run.
4) Low blood sugar levels:
Low blood sugar levels can cause headaches. One to two hours before you run, you should have a quick snack containing carbohydrate, protein and fat such as a fruit and nut cereal bar, whole wheat toast with peanut butter on it or a small bowl of cereal to keep your blood sugar level balanced during your run. Following your run a post-run snack which is a mixture of carbs and protein is recommended.
5) The secret ingredient – the neck:
In the medical literature, the exact cause of running induced headaches is a mystery. Rebecca Nelson, Director of Physiotherapy at Apex Clinic and Apex Headache Clinic believes that the most common cause of running related headaches or migraines is stiffness in the upper neck joints, which then triggers the headache or migraine. She has found from her vast experience of treating runners that in most cases, these benign recurring headaches such as migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches are triggered from the upper neck joints, even if the person experiences no neck pain at all.
The cause of stiffness in these upper neck joints is often poor posture, hours spent hunched over desks/ computers, repetitive lifting or damage from a previous accident or fall. If a runner has a perfect running posture but has stiffness in one or more of their upper neck joints, then this may trigger headaches until the stiff segments of their neck are manually loosened or mobilised by a physiotherapist, who is experienced in treating headaches. These running induced headaches are a physical problem concerning the upper neck joints and are not related to stress or tension. The good news is that in most cases, these running induced headaches can be cleared with the correct physiotherapy treatment regime which includes progressive manual mobilisation or loosening of the tight joints in the upper neck region.
For those who suffer migraines during or after running it is advisable to wear running sunglasses on brighter days to reduce the visual glare. Heat for all running induced headaches can provide a soothing temporary relief, such as standing under a hot shower, and applying cold or ice to your head is not recommended. Running on softer surfaces such as grass, bark or the treadmill can reduce the intensity of running induced headaches due to the reduction in the impact coming up from your feet to your neck. Having a firm supportive pillow is also essential for headaches or migraines which are triggered from your neck. You should always sleep with only one pillow and try to avoid feather pillows, due to their lack of support.
If you have tried tweaking a few things from the advice above and your running induced headaches are still no better, you really need to seek professional help. We treat many running induced headaches successfully here at Apex Headache Clinic or alternatively, see your local physiotherapist, as long as they have had post-graduate training and experience in the treatment of headaches. Running should clear your head not hurt it!