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  • Updated 03.21.2024
  • Released 09.26.1996
  • Expires For CME 03.21.2027

Primary exercise headache



Primary exercise headache is a rare syndrome where headache can be induced during or after physical exertion. Intracranial pathology can present with exercise-induced headaches, and therefore, it is imperative to investigate for secondary causes. Other Valsalva-induced headache syndromes, primary cough headache and primary headache associated with sexual activity, are discussed in dedicated MedLink Neurology articles.

Key points

• Primary exercise headache is a diagnosis of exclusion. Headache induced by exertion is a red flag and imaging is necessary to rule out secondary causes.

• Phenotypically, the headache begins within 30 minutes of cessation of exertion, typically lasts up to 4 hours, and can be associated with migrainous features.

• Prevention of headache attacks can be through modification of exercise. Where this is not possible or successful, prophylactic indomethacin can be utilized.

• Patients typically experience spontaneous resolution.

Historical note and terminology

Headache associated with exercise or exertion has been noted as early as classical Greece when Hippocrates wrote, “one should be able to recognize those who have headaches from gymnastic exercises, or running, or walking or hunting, or any other unseasonable labour, or from immoderate venery…” (02).

The first description in modern medicine was in 1932 by Tinel, who presented four patients with intermittent, paroxysmal headaches following exertion and surmised the cause was distention of the intracranial veins due to increased intrathoracic pressure (44). Symonds’s observations differentiated this further and described headaches induced by Valsalva-like maneuvers and not exertion (42), now classified as primary cough headache (19).

Jokl self-described “an attack of nausea, headache, prolonged weakness, and vomiting” brought on after running that lasted 15 minutes (22).

He later noted several profound cases of “effort migraine” during the Olympic Games in Mexico City (23). He described high altitude, heat, humidity, and perhaps lack of training as predisposing factors. These headaches tended to occur with prolonged running rather than sprints. These highly conditioned athletes developed scotomata, unilateral retro-orbital pain, nausea and vomiting, and, in some cases, a striking prostration. These descriptions are more in keeping with migraine triggered by exertion.

The first large published series on exertion-induced headache or head pain related to exertion came from the Mayo Clinic (38). The cohort included 103 patients with headache precipitated by running, bending over, coughing, sneezing, straining, or heavy lifting. Of their cohort, 90% were diagnosed with “benign exertional headache unassociated with intracranial lesions”; however, the phenotype was not differentiated by either precipitation with sudden Valsalva maneuvers or sustained exertion or exercise.

Primary exercise headache was initially termed “benign exertional headache” in the first edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (17). It was subsequently renamed “primary exertional headache” in the second edition (18) and is now described as “primary exercise headache” in the third edition (19).

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