During the January lockdown, Marilyn Law thought she was doing the right thing on her new exercise bike to keep fit while the gyms were closed.
Marilyn, an avid hiker who had previously taken a weekly exercise class, cycled away in anger for 40 minutes four or five days a week – and often worked up a sweat.
But within two weeks of starting her new regimen, Marilyn had a blinding headache. The excruciating pain was concentrated in one eye and often occurred in the middle of the night without warning.
“The throbbing started early in the morning,” says Marilyn, 75, a retired caterer and mother of two who lives in Bury, Greater Manchester with her husband, Robert, also 75, a retired driving instructor.
“It was bizarre because it was quiet in the room and I was sleeping – and yet it woke me up,” she says. “I started to worry that I was having a stroke or that it was a tumor.”
After two months of worrying that something serious might be wrong, Marilyn eventually went to the family doctor only to find an unlikely culprit.
During the January lockdown, Marilyn Law thought she was doing the right thing on her new exercise bike to keep fit while the gyms were closed
The family doctor gave Marilyn a printout about the possible causes of her headache.
“I went through the list of triggers and one of them was excessive exercise and profuse sweating,” she says. ‘I thought,’ Bingo! Now I know how to heal myself. ‘ ‘
In fact, Marilyn stopped cycling for three weeks and then gradually resumed her workouts – starting at 20 minutes a day a week – and the headache went away.
Confusingly, exercise – although beneficial in reducing the frequency of some headaches – can also trigger it: from mild to sudden severe pain Marilyn feels to migraines (which causes not only severe headaches, but other symptoms such as z nausea).
A 2013 study in the Journal of Headache and Pain that included more than 100 migraineurs found that 38 percent of migraines were triggered by physical exertion, often starting with neck pain.
More than half gave up the type of exercise that triggered them and found that they could safely do lower-intensity exercises without developing a migraine.
The study suggested an explanation that higher levels of lactic acid (a natural by-product of exercise produced in the body) in the brain can lead to higher frequencies of migraines, possibly because people who are prone to migraines can metabolize lactic acid more slowly.
Another theory suggests that many exercise-induced headaches are caused by an increase in intrathoracic pressure (in the chest).
In fact, Marilyn stopped cycling for three weeks and then gradually resumed her workouts – starting at 20 minutes a day a week – and the headache went away
When you lift a weight, you tend to hold your breath and use your diaphragm and chest to push the weight up, ”explains Dr. Ben Turner, a consulting neurologist at London Bridge Hospital.
“This intrathoracic pressure is fed back into the brain and can destabilize the nerves and possibly make the brain more unstable by altering the vagus nerve (which runs from the head to the abdomen).
“People may feel like their blood vessels are pounding in their head, but it has been debunked that these types of headaches have something to do with the vasculature.
“Going back to the gym after being locked down and having sudden bursts of activity are risk factors,” he adds. There is a tell-tale sign of a headache caused by exercise.
“Exercise-related headaches should usually get better within an hour,” says Dr. Gymnast. Research has shown that the type of exercise is important, with weightlifting-induced headaches typically lasting only a few minutes, while those induced by aerobic exercise such as jogging or cycling last an hour or more and can be exacerbated by dehydration , Heat, or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Running or jogging was the main culprit, with 6 percent of women citing cycling as a trigger, according to a study of 129 people who experience exercise-related headaches, the Journal of Sports Medicine reported in 1994.
And a 2008 study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain suggests that around 1.5 percent of headaches are caused by exercise and other forms of exertion.
The study monitored more than 6,000 patients prone to headaches caused by any of three types of exertion – coughing, sex, or exercise – for ten years.
It found that coughing was the most common trigger, accounting for 70.1 percent of exercise-related headaches, followed by sex (18.6 percent) and exercise (11.35 percent). The study found that the median age for experiencing exercise-induced headaches was 40.
To avoid this, says Dr. Turner: “Build up your workout slowly. If you get a headache with one type of exercise, try another.
“Exercise-related headaches remain a mystery – they start and stay for a while and then go away, but can return a few years later.”
Like Dr. Turner explains, while people often look for a specific trigger for their headache, it’s more likely that a combination of factors are causing it.
“Everything revolves around homeostasis” [the ability to regulate our internal mechanisms],’ he says. “Nerves want to be in perfect condition. Hormones, dehydration, hypoglycemia, periods can make your nerves unstable and make you more likely to get headaches. ‘
Marilyn, who previously had no regular headaches, didn’t know about it when she went to the exercise bike that her son and daughter-in-law had given her for their silver wedding anniversary last December.
Research has shown that the type of exercise is important, with weightlifting-induced headaches typically lasting only a few minutes, while those induced by aerobic exercise such as jogging or cycling last an hour or more and can be exacerbated by dehydration , Heat, or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
“Like everyone else, we had put a ‘corona stone’ on it, which was a bit unsettling,” she says.
“In normal times, I take a weekly sports class with friends and I’m always on the go, but in the January lockdown it was tough.
“I haven’t kept myself in shape by gardening and walking like I used to, and it can be difficult to motivate yourself to take online classes.”
So Marilyn jumped into training on the static bike. The headache started within two weeks.
The first lasted three days, gathered around her right eye and made it cry.
Marilyn suspected her eyesight was deteriorating, but a visit to the optician confirmed that her eyes were healthy.
The headache continued with excruciating regularity.
“I always say I almost die to take acetaminophen, but I only swallowed it to relieve the pain,” she says.
How music can improve your health. This week: It relieves dental surgery pain
Tired of going to the dentist? Try listening to music – according to a study published in the British Dental Journal last year, this can reduce anxiety during minor oral surgery such as wisdom tooth removal and tooth extractions.
Researchers at East Surrey Hospital and Birmingham Dental Hospital found that the majority (92 percent) of patients who had dental surgery and listened to music during their treatment had lower heart rates and less pain and discomfort. Previous studies have shown that music helps activate the part of the nervous system that slows heart rate and breathing.
About half of the participants also said that music made it easier to communicate with the dental team (possibly because it stimulates the senses and thereby improves active engagement with others) and most patients said that they would ask for music again the next time they visit.
“I was walking around with dark glasses when one eye was crying. I made a note of the headache and its symptoms – they started on one side and then moved. I felt it all over my head at the end of February. ‘
Marilyn stopped exercising for three weeks and then gradually reintroduced the bike.
“I don’t use the bike when I’ve walked eight miles or worked a lot in the garden because I think that could trigger my headaches,” she says. “But when I don’t do a lot, I ride my bike.”
It also ensures that she stays hydrated. Her GP warned Marilyn the headache could last for three months to a year, but since adjusting her exercise regimen, she has found it has disappeared.
Dr. Turner warns, however, “Anyone over 50 who develops a headache should be evaluated for an underlying cause.
“The most important thing to rule out is temporal arteritis, which occurs in those over 50 and can lead to sudden blindness.”
Marilyn is happy to have found a solution: “I am very happy that I got rid of this headache – my GP warned me that it could take a while.”