Headaches In Sport

Headaches in sport

Headaches are an extremely common complaint. They vary in pain intensity, pattern, and location from individual to individual. Although irritating the majority of headaches do not require medical intervention.

When to seek medical advice

Medical attention should be sought for a headache if it is new and unaccustomed or if you have regular headaches but they have changed in their pattern, intensity, or frequency. Also if symptoms include drowsiness, numbness, stiff neck, weight loss, or fever.

Assessment of headaches in sport

On assessment, the practitioner may try and narrow down what type of headache is being experienced. This is done by taking a clinical history of symptoms namely the location, severity, and frequency of a headache. Other factors that may be included in the assessment are:

  • Whether any medication is being taken at present.
  • What aggravates or eases the symptoms.
  • Whether the headaches are associated with any other symptoms such as nausea or vomiting.

There are a number of different classifications of a headache. Below is an overview of the most common types and those associated with sporting activities.

Vascular headaches

  • These headaches are extremely common, affecting approximately 20% of the population at some stage of their life
  • These headaches are thought to be associated with an increase in blood flow to the head causing a throbbing sensation.

Two main types exist:


Signs and Symptoms of a migraine:

  • This headache is characterized by an intense, throbbing, or pounding pain that is felt periodically in the forehead, temple, ear, jaw, or around the eye.
  • In some cases, prior to the pain, patients may see flashing lights, stars, or other white objects. This is known as an aura and usually lasts about 15-20 minutes.
  • Visual disturbance, problems with speech, vomiting, and nausea may also be present during or after the attack.

A number of factors commonly predispose to migraines such as:

  • Changes in altitude
  • Metabolic changes
  • Variation of medication
  • Changes in blood pressure
  • Hormonal changes
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Variations in diet

Treatment of migraines

  • Drug prescription from a medical practitioner is thought to be the most effective treatment.
  • During a migraine headache, application of a cold pack to the head may provide relief.
  • Pressing on a prominent artery found either in front of the ear or on the painful side of the head may temporarily relieve symptoms.
  • Other methods of treatment are sleep, alteration of diet, biofeedback training and reduction of stress.
  • Simple painkillers, such as aspirin, taken regularly should be avoided in the event of a migraine as this may intensify symptoms in the future.

Read more on Migraines

Cluster Headache

These headaches are so-called as they commonly occur in ‘clusters’ over a period of weeks or months, at approximately the same time of day.

Signs and Symptoms of a cluster headache:

  • The pain associated is very intense, characterized by a burning or boring sensation that often immobilizes the person.
  • Cluster headaches are about 5 times more common in men.
  • Attacks may last form 30-45 minutes.

Treatment for a cluster headache:

  • Specific anti-migraine drugs can help with the symptoms of a cluster headache.
  • Rapid inhalation of pure oxygen through a mask for 5 to 15 minutes is also known to help although the mechanism for this is unclear.

Cervical headache

The other main type of headache is a cervical headache. These headaches are caused as a result of dysfunction in the muscles, joints, nerves, or fascia in and around the neck region. Pain radiates towards the skull giving the sensation of a steady dull, ache.

Causes of a cervical headache

  • Nerve compression in the between the neck bones
  • Abnormal tenderness in the neck tissues associated with trigger points in certain muscles.
  • Limited neck range of movement i.e. ‘stiff neck

Treatment of a cervical headache

A number of headaches can be as sustained as a result of sport:

‘Footballers Migraine’ (Post-traumatic Migraine)

  • This is caused by trauma to the head which may be as small as heading the ball rather than a full-on collision resulting in more serious concussion injury.
  • May result in loss of consciousness.
  • Tends to resolve itself in a few hours.

‘Swim Goggle Headache’ (External Compression Headache)

  • Caused by compression on the skull, for example, by a swimming goggle strap.
  • Compression is thought to stimulate the nerves under the skin causing pain in the head region.

‘Divers Headache’ (Hypercapnia Headache)

  • Thought to be caused by an increase in the pressure below a certain depth. This may lead to an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood.

‘High Altitude’ A headache:

  • Usually occurs in an unacclimatized person shortly after ascending to an altitude of about 4000 to 6000 feet.
  • May be associated with mountain sickness.

‘Benign Exertional’ A headache (BEH)

  • Common in weightlifting and other sports where over-exertion occurs.
  • During exertion, blood pressure increases causing more blood to flow to the head. In certain cases, this may manifest as a throbbing pain.
  • May last from a few minutes to 24 hours.

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