Jun 032012

Are you experiencing headaches when you swim?  I followed a blog on the USMS forums the last few days that was quite interesting.  If you get the chance,  check out the blogs at USMS. You will need to create a user name and sign on, but it is a free service to USMS members and there are so many great forums to peruse.

Ok, back to headaches. I was interested in this particular posting because I suffer intense headaches after some swim races. Rarely in practice and I am thankful for that! My headaches come on within 5 to 15 minutes of finishing only a few of the races that I compete in – 200 Breast, 400 IM and occasionally, 100 Breast.  I’m a first hand witness that those headaches can be excruciating and debilitating.  I’ve thought it was asthma, hydration, too much sun, bright glare from sun or sun on the water, nutrition, etc. Never found the answer. I do know that I must have my normal cup of coffee on a swim day or the headache is a guarantee.

On this USMS forum, this particular swimmer was experiencing headaches routinely in practice. A pool temp of 85 degrees (ugh) and 90 minute plus practices were some of her baselines. All kinds of ideas were bandied about, including hydration, proper nutritional aspects, water temp, etc. The post that caught my attention was a fellow swimmer noting a Mayo Clinic web post on “exertional headaches”.

Here’s some excerpts from the Mayo Clinic post.

Exercise headaches occur during or after sustained, strenuous exercise. Activities associated with exercise headaches include running, rowing, tennis, swimming and weightlifting.

Doctors divide exercise headaches into two categories. Primary exercise headaches are usually harmless, aren’t connected to any underlying problems and can often be prevented with medication. Secondary exercise headaches, on the other hand, are caused by an underlying, often serious, problem within the brain — such as bleeding or a tumor — or outside the brain — such as coronary artery disease. Secondary exercise headaches may require emergency medical attention.

I’ll forego analyzing the “secondary exercise headaches”. If you think you may fall into this category, be sure and read the full write up by Mayo and go call your primary care physician. For now, more from Mayo:

The exact cause of primary exercise headaches is unknown. One theory is that strenuous exercise dilates blood vessels inside the skull.

Those who suffer primary exercise headaches describe them as throbbing, say they take place during or after strenuous exercise, and, in most cases,  affect both sides of their head. That fits my own headaches to a “T”.  It is so bad that I’ve occasionaly had to bag the rest of the meet and I struggle to make it home. The headaches I get usually subside after 12 to 24 hours. It makes swimming those events intimidating knowing that kind of pain awaits me after a breaststroke race that is only 1:11 (short course) to maybe 3:15 in length (long course). Many would tell me just give those races up. Geez, really? They are my best events and I just hate the thought of caving in to the possibility of pain. Well, let’s be honest, 400 IM is kind of easy to give up. 🙂

Ok then, we’ve got this theory that strenuous exercise dilates blood vessels. Jim Thornton, a sufferer of excercise heaches, posting on the USMS blog writes,

…have you ever tried drinking some coffee before (and maybe during) practice? A known effect of caffeine is to constrict blood vessels in the brain, and this might help you–no joke!

You could take some Jolt gum to practice and pop a chiclet every half hour, chew vigorously, then pop beneath your tongue for maximum buccal absorption!

I would also consider taking some pain pills before practice–Alleve or even Tylenol.

I don’t know Jolt gum, but I have experimented with caffeine intake during the swim meets, trying just small doses before an event. Have not done this enough to judge its efficacy. It is worthy of more attempts, and in the future,  I’ll keep a log. Perhaps I will find the right amount of caffeine to stave off these exertional headaches.

Risk factors, as noted by the Mayo post are:

You may be at greater risk of exercise headaches if you:

  • Exercise in hot weather
  • Exercise at high altitude
  • Have a personal or family history of migraine

Primary exercise headaches occur most often in people in early adulthood or adolescence.

Hmm, that last point doesn’t quite match as I am now in my 5th decade. Seriously though, if you are a sufferer of exercise headaches, there may be hope for you! I’d encourage you to see your doctor, even if the bouts are infrequent. By being able to describe in detail when they hit, what they feel like, how long they last, what gives you relief from them, etc., your doctor may have answers for how to address this problem. If you are like me, you probably don’t want to give up what you love. Maybe, just maybe you won’t have to.

  2 Responses to “Exercise Headache?”

  1. Thanks for the tips – I only recently started to suffer from excrutiating headaches the first 100 – 200 m of a 1600 exercise swim. I am busy practising for the Midmar Mile outdoor swim. The headaches subside after a while although they do not go away completely. I’ll try the caffeine tip. (II only drink water (boiling of cold) – sometimes some green tea and coffee only about once every six weeks with the girls.)

    I have never bothered to warm up before hand, besides some stretching. Who wants to get tired before the race? But anything will be better than these all of a sudden headaches.

  2. Thanks for this tips, recently, I practice for 3000m swim, I try to striggle swim over 1 hour continuously and I tried slow or medium fast speed (in my ability), once around 1 hour, I headache, each time practice, each time headache, I am frustrated, but because Bibbi B in TribeSports encourage, I search web and find this post.

    I have habbit of drinking 2 or more coffee a day and I usually when run out of enery but keep on swim, I will breath out air under water uncontrolled with both mouth and nose, and many times I intake water during swim, I am finding the cause. And I sometimes 4 stroke one breath.

    Is it caffine?
    Is it in take water?
    Is it insufficient air?
    Is it too many stroke one breath and I don’t have enough oxygen,….. I am finding…..

    Thanks for this post, I now know the term “exercise headache” and yet I know I am not alone.

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