*Disclaimer* I am not a physician or other medical professional, all information available is of the author’s opinion from the author’s own life experiences. This article is not intended to treat, diagnose or cure any illness. For proper guidance always seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional.
Setbacks are a part of life. Just when you start riding the gravy train and feel like you are invincible, life teaches you a lesson. It reminds you that you are not one of the gods, you are a mere mortal. Unfortunate, I know. One common setback that happens to lifters of all types are the dreaded exertion headaches. Exertion headaches are a real nuisance. You still feel like you can walk into the gym and deadlift or bench press a house, but then you start to get a bad headache.
What Are Exertion Headaches?
Exertion headaches are headaches that is triggered from intense physical exercise. A lot of the time, these headaches often occur from heavy strength training involving lower body movements (squat, deadlift, clean and jerk, snatch). Thus, sometimes they are often referred to as weightlifter’s headache. Most of the time these headaches are harmless. However, it is still advised to check in with your primary care physician or specialist to rule out any other potential problems.
What Is Physiologically Going On?
Let’s now take a look inside of the body. When you lift big heavy weights, you are exerting a huge amount of stress on your body. This stress takes the form of increased mean arterial blood pressure and increased heart rate. This effect is exacerbated even more by the valsalva maneuver (holding your breath). Now in relation to exertion headaches, this also has an effect on cranial pressure.
The cranium houses the most important organ in the body, the brain. The brain receives no blood flow, instead nutrients to the brain must pass through something called the Blood Brain Barrier (BBB). The BBB separates blood from cerebral spinal fluid. The structure for this is provided by the meninges. The meninges are a membrane form a protective layer around the brain and spinal column. When under exertion from intense exercise and blood pressure goes up, the outer layer of the meninges, the dura mater, become irritated and sensitive, thus creating the headache.
What Causes Them?
Now just doing the valsalva maneuver alone with heavy weights can cause headaches in some people, however, I really never can say that this alone is what causes the headaches. Typically, it is a combination of traits. However, there is one thing that I have noticed that can cause them and that is a “cocked head” or over-extension in the neck (as pictured below).
The neck should remain neutral at all times, when exercising. When the head is placed in an overextended position under heavy load, it increases cranial pressure even more. Thus, irritating the meninges even more. Now just to be clear, I’m not talking about a neck strain, which is actual pain in the neck, I’m referring to chronically keeping your head in an overextended position instead of neutral. If you are feeling pain in your neck then please go see your primary care physician or specialist for an evaluation.
Now this is a bad habit that should be corrected IMMEDIATELY. Otherwise, the headaches will continue to persist and interfere with your progress. I see people doing this during squats, deadlifts, handstands, pull-ups, etc. STOP! If you are catching yourself doing this, then you need to lower the weight until you can perform the exercise correctly. Unfortunately, your ego will have to take the hit.
How Do I Get Rid Of Them?
Depending on the severity of the headache, these types of headaches can last anywhere from 2 weeks to several months in severe cases. Don’t stress it, there are ways to speed up recovery. Here are several ways to get rid of exertion headaches:
The most important thing to do after getting exertion headaches is to rest. This includes making sure that you are getting a good night sleep, not doing any severe physical activities of any kind. Trying to muscle your way through another workout will only make the headache persist. The severity of the headache will determine what you can and cannot do.
Motor Learning Work
When you eventually make your way back to the weight room, you will have to learn to keep your head in a neutral position (pictured below).
This is achieved by consistent practice. Unfortunately it is much easier for the body to learn something right vs. unlearning something wrong. Therefore, this is more of a long term remedy for exertion headaches to prevent them from rearing their ugly head unexpectedly in the future. Use a mirror if you have to. Spend some time working on your posture. Practice and master this!
Eat a clean diet of fruits, veggies and lean meats. Since you will not be to active when recovering from your headache it would not be wise to splurge and binge on junk food. Crappy food choices (pizza, donuts, ice cream, etc.), will only cause more inflammation in the body. Inflammation weakens the immune system which will slow down the recovery. If you want to ditch the headache as fast as possible and get back to the weight room, then eat right.
The final and most important thing to remember is that everything is going to be all right. There is no need to be a stress bag. The headache has already happened, you just need to remain patient and ride it out. If you are out of the gym for a while, remember, your strength will always come back faster than before. In my article Easing Back Into Training, I discuss this more.
The best way to chill out is to work on your breathing, in my other post, Breathing For Stronger Abs, I mentioned that rapid shallow breaths elevate your blood pressure and raise your heart rate. Therefore, it would be wise to take deep slow breaths into your belly to help calm your nervous system down. Not only will this help you unwind, but it will also help to fight off the headache as well.