Headaches in Sports: Diagnosis, Types-Vascular, Cervical, Exercise-Induced, High Altitude

Every individual suffers from a headache at some point in one’s life. Headache is one of the most common complaints in human beings. Different people suffer from different types of headaches. The intensity of the pain, location and pattern are variable and differ from one individual to another. Majority of the times, headaches resolve on their own and do not need medical attention. However, they can prove to be very irritating to an individual and may hinder with their quality of life. Persistent headaches should not be ignored, as there may be a serious underlying cause for it.

Headaches in Sports

Headaches Requiring Medical Attention

  • If the headache is new or unusual.
  • If there is any change in the character of the headache such as intensity of the pain or location.
  • If the frequency of the headache increases.
  • If the headache is accompanied by a feeling of being drowsy, fever, neck stiffness, loss of weight, or numbness.

Diagnosis for Headaches in Sports

For diagnosing the cause of the headache, the doctor will take a detailed history regarding symptoms such as location and intensity of headaches as well as the frequency. The factors which are considered during evaluation are:

  • If any medications are being taken by the patient.
  • What triggers the headache and eases it.
  • If headaches experienced is accompanied by other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, fever, numbness.

Types of Headaches in Sports

Types of Headaches in Sports

Given Below Are Some Common Types Of Headaches Which Are Related To People Involved With Sports:

1. Vascular Headaches in Sports

  • This type of headache is very common. About 20% of individuals suffer from this type of headache at some point in time or the other.
  • Such headaches are said to occur because of increased blood flow in the head giving rise to a feeling of throbbing.

There are 2 Main Types of Vascular Headaches

i) Migraine-

Signs and Symptoms of Migraine

  • Such headaches are acute in nature with throbbing or pulsating pain which can be felt intermittently in front of the head, temporal region, the ears, jaw or near the eye.
  • Some patients experience aura before the actual migraine sets which can constitute of flashing lights, floaters in the visual field etc. This can last for about half an hour.
  • Other associated symptoms of migraine are: Visual disturbance, speech problems, nausea and vomiting at the time of a migraine attack or after it.

Some Triggers of Migraines Are As Follows:

  • Stress
  • Altitude changes
  • Changes in metabolic activity
  • Blood pressure fluctuations
  • Hormonal changes
  • Sleep loss or alterations in sleep pattern
  • Fasting or changes in diet
  • Dehydration
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Smoking and cigarette smoke
  • Muscle spasm.
  • Alcohol, coffee and chocolate consumption
  • Certain odor and medications

Treatment of Migraine

  • Use of painkillers like paracetamol has been used successfully in treating the headaches.
  • If the above treatment fails, then more stronger painkillers are prescribed by the physician.
  • For migraines that can be moderate to severe, abortive medications especially used for migraines are used such as triptans and ergotamine.
  • In some cases narcotics and butalbital containing drugs are used but they are well known to be addictive medications.
  • NSAIDs such as ibuprofen and naproxen are also effective for treatment of migraines in some individuals.
  • Medications are given to control nausea.
  • People suffering from severe migraines accompanied by nausea are sometimes given drug called Compazine or Reglan, which is a combination of triptan and anti-nausea medications.
  • Sleep helps the best in relief from migraines.
  • Relaxation techniques and biofeedback are helpful in calming down the symptoms.
  • By far the best way to avoid migraines is to prevent it and that can be done by avoiding things that cause it i.e., triggers and making certain lifestyle changes like exercising, eating a well balanced diet, avoiding smoking and alcohol, getting adequate sleep, and trying to be relaxed.
  • Medications which help in controlling the frequency and duration of the headache also called as prophylactic drugs should be taken daily to avoid migraines like tricyclic antidepressants, beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers etc.
  • Acupuncture also has been known to be of benefit in some cases of migraine disorder.
  • In cases of persistent migraines, studies like CT or MRI as well as blood draws need to be done to exclude other causes of headaches such as a tumor.
  • In case of hormonal migraines, they can be treated using contraceptive pills and estrogen patches in order to balance hormonal levels.

ii) Cluster Headaches

Such headaches generally occur in groups or clusters at roughly the same time of day and over a period of time that can range from a few weeks to months, hence the name “cluster headaches.”

Symptoms of Cluster Headaches

  • Intense pain distinguished by a boring or burning sensation which hinders a person’s daily activities.
  • Men more frequently suffer from cluster headaches than women.
  • They may last from half an hour to an hour at most.

Treatment for Cluster Headache

  • Anti-migraine medications help in treatment of cluster headaches.
  • Inhaling pure oxygen via a mask for around 15 minutes can also help in alleviating a cluster headache; although it is unclear as to how it works.

2. Cervical Headache

Cervical headache is also one of the main types of headache. The cause for these headaches is dysfunctioning joints, muscles, nerves, fascia near the neck area. The pain goes in the direction of the head resulting in a continuous and dull ache.

How Are Cervical Headaches Caused?

  • Compression of nerves relating to the neck bones.
  • Trigger points in some muscles can cause extreme tenderness in the tissues of the neck.
  • Stiff neck causing limitation of range of motion of the neck.

Treatment of Cervical Headache

  • Massage helps in relieving muscle tension/spasm.
  • Adopting correct posture or posture retraining.

3. Exercise-Induced Headaches

Exercise or sporting activities can cause quite a few headaches such as:

Footballer’s Migraine also Known as Posttraumatic Migraine

  • This headache is brought on by an injury to the head such as when a footballer heads the ball.
  • The person may lose consciousness.
  • It usually resolves on its own after few hours.

External Compression Headache Also Known As Swim Goggle Headache

  • This headache is brought on by compression of the skull such as with a swimming goggle strap.
  • This skull compression is believed to incite the nerves present below the skin resulting in a headache.

Hypercapnia Headache also known as Diver’s Headache

  • This is named so because it is caused by increase in pressure below a particular level of deepness leading to increased amount of carbon dioxide in blood stream and resulting in a headache.

4. High Altitude Headaches

  • This generally occurs in a person who is not able to acclimatize adequately when reaching a high altitude
  • It can be accompanied by mountain sickness also.

5. Benign Exertional Headaches

  • This commonly occurs in those individuals who are involved in heavy exertion such as weightlifting.
  • When there is too much exertion, there is an increase in blood pressure which causes the flow of blood to increase in the head causing a throbbing pain.
  • It may last a few minutes to an entire day.
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 29, 2022

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