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10 Nice-to-Know Facts About Headaches

Peterson, James A. Ph.D., FACSM

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: May 2007 - Volume 11 - Issue 3 - p 50
doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000269061.41583.2e
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In Brief

1 A pain by any other name. Most headaches tend to be grouped by their symptoms into three common categories-tension, migraine, and cluster. Unfortunately, the misery of headache pain will affect three of four people at least once a year. Even more troubling is the fact that headaches are a chronic problem for more than 45 million Americans.

2 Cause and effect. In reality, the physiological causes of the most common types of headaches are not fully understood. At this time, no known cures exist for these debilitating and painful occurrences. What is known is that specific factors (including exercise) may create the conditions that lead to headaches in individuals who have a propensity for having such maladies.

3 Villain or hero? Exercise can be either a trigger or a treatment for headaches, depending on the type of headache and whether the exercise is properly prescribed. In this regard, avoiding the kind of physical activity regimen (e.g., acute, intense bouts) that can lead to headaches is essential. The key is for individuals to only engage in exercise that is appropriate for them.

4 Exercise is medicine. Engaging in aerobic exercise on a regular basis has been found to decrease the number of headaches that people experience and the severity of the episodes by as much as 50% because of its effect on the body's release of endorphins and serotonin into the blood stream. In this regard, it is essential that individuals who are prone to headaches increase their activity levels gradually over time, adequately warm up, and cool down before and after exercising.

5 Stress and strain may lead to pain. Individuals who have tension-type headaches often report the onset of such headaches after strength training. It is important that these individuals, while lifting weights, should always exercise through a full range of motion, avoid holding their breath, and overexerting themselves while exercising.

6 Exercise-induced migraines. Although the root causes of a migraine headache remain a mystery, migraine pain seems to come from an inflammation and a dilation of the blood vessels. Conventional wisdom dictates that migraine-prone individuals should consider taking an anti-inflammatory medication before working out and take particular care to ease into their exercise bout.

7 Safety first. On very rare occasions, headaches are symptomatic of a more serious problem. As such, individuals should make sure that no underlying cause for their headaches exists that should be addressed. In that regard, individuals should be alert for signs that their headaches may be more than merely a painful condition (e.g., their headaches are accompanied by numbness, blurred vision, dizziness, or memory loss; their headaches are getting stronger or are occurring more frequently).

8 Know thyself and thy triggers. Individuals should keep a lifestyle/activity diary on which they record information that could possibly help determine their personal triggers for their headaches. As such, they can try to identify any relationship between a specific factor and the onset of their headaches.

9 Age matters. Those who frequently have headaches are more likely to be younger (i.e., aged 34 years or younger) than older. In fact, children can have the same types of headaches as adults, including migraine and tension-induced headaches. However, once individuals reach the age of 65 years, they only have a 50% likelihood of having a single headache during the year compared with younger individuals.

10 Cold facts. Suffering a sudden headache after eating something very cold, such as ice cream, is fairly common-particularly among people who have a history of migraines. The best way to avoid "ice cream headaches" is to eat the ice cream slowly to minimize the cold shock on the body.

© 2007 American College of Sports Medicine