Up to 50 percent of runners report having experienced a headache after running or exercising, according to Dr. Derek Worley, a board certified doctor in sports medicine and internal medicine at Erlanger.
"You can really have it in any sport," he says, "anything that involves physical exertion."
While a headache after running is common, and not necessarily something to worry about, regular pain following a workout can discourage some from exercising. Plus, it's a general nuisance.
And sometimes, it could mean something serious.
Most of the headaches can be chalked up to dehydration and not eating properly, Worley says. However, there are others who experience the pain immediately following runs despite being hydrated and having stretched and eaten properly — something referred to as a "runner's headache." The feeling is generally a throbbing pain on both sides of the head.
People who experience migraines or regular headaches are more likely to get runner's headache following exercise, says Worley, but what are the causes?
"The interesting thing about runner's headache is that it's not something we fully understand," he says. "We have tried to hypothesize, and we think it may have something to do with blood flow to the brain."
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which has receptors that try to regulate the flow. A brain can have a hard time doing that, leading to a headache, Worley says, but usually it can be difficult to find one cause. It's often a process of elimination.
Do headaches happen at other times, or only when the person runs? Worley wants to make sure his patients aren't experiencing other issues that may be masking as runner's headache.
He'll also ask about nutrition.
"It may not be that they have runner's headache; it may just be they aren't eating or drinking enough," he says.
If that's the case, it's not runner's headache and is quickly fixed by concentrating on nutrition. If pain persists after improving nutrition and hydration, Worley recommends Naproxen as a possible preventive. The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory is commonly known as its brand name, Aleve. Some doctors also recommend beta blockers, which block the effects of adrenaline and reduce blood sugar. And fish oil can act like a natural anti-inflammatory due to its fatty acids, he says. Those who experience migraines can also try taking their migraine medicine to reduce pain.
Should none of that work, Worley recommends Tylenol or Ibuprofen for those experiencing runner's headache. "Most people have their preference of what works for them," he says, though either is a good, safe option.
He also recommends getting plenty of rest and drinking water if a headache does hit.
When to worry
Headaches can point to larger issues. Those who have tried these other steps and still experience issues should see a physician, Worley says. They may need to have an imaging study done to make sure there isn't something more severe like a tumor or a problem with blood vessels going to the brain.
"If they're still struggling with it and it's not getting better, I would definitely recommend seeing someone," says Worley.