You’ve just come back from a great hike. You feel exhilarated, proud, and maybe a little bit tired. But then, the next day, you wake up with a throbbing headache. Why does this happen?
Well, for starters, hiking is a lot of work. You’re constantly using your leg muscles to move up and down hills, and you’re also using your arm muscles to help you balance. All that exertion takes a toll on your body. So what is it, specifically, that causes a headache after hiking?
What Are the Causes of A Headache After Hiking
There are a few different things that can cause a headache after hiking, and it’s often a combination of these factors.
Dehydration is a common cause of headaches, and it’s especially likely if you hike in hot weather or at a high altitude. When you sweat, you lose not only water but also electrolytes like sodium and potassium. These electrolytes are critical for keeping your body hydrated and for maintaining proper fluid balance. If you don’t replace them, you can become dehydrated, which can lead to a headache.
Another common cause of headaches is tension in the neck and shoulders. When you hike, you use muscles that you don’t normally use, and these muscles can become tight and sore. This tension can lead to headaches. I personally struggled with a lot of tension around my neck and shoulders and found that getting regular massages helped a lot.
Exercise-induced headaches are also common and most likely the root of your post-hike headache. These are usually harmless and go away on their own, but they can be painful. They’re thought to be caused by changes in blood flow or the release of chemicals like endorphins.
Finally, altitude sickness is a possibility if you hike to a high elevation. This is because there is less oxygen at higher altitudes, and your body may not be able to adjust to the change quickly enough. If you start to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous while hiking, it’s important to descend to a lower altitude as soon as you can. Altitude sickness can be very serious, so it’s important to listen to your body and take it easy if you start to feel unwell.
What Can You Do to Prevent or Relieve a Headache After Hiking?
There are a few things you can do to prevent or relieve a headache after hiking, depending on the type of headache.
First, make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water before, during, and after your hike. You might also want to bring along a sports drink, Gatorade, to replenish your electrolytes.
Second, warm up before you start hiking and cool down when you finish. This will help prevent muscle aches and tension. How do you warm up or cool down for a hike? You can perform some light stretching, or walk for 10-15 minutes on a flat surface to get your muscles loose.
Third, if you’re susceptible to exercise-induced headaches, keep some ibuprofen or acetaminophen in your first aid kit.
You can also apply a cold compress to your forehead for ten to fifteen minutes. This will help to reduce inflammation and pain.
Finally, if your headache is severe or doesn’t go away, make sure to see a doctor. Exercise-induced headaches are usually harmless, but they can sometimes be a sign of something more serious. If you’re concerned, it’s always better to make a visit to your doctor, than try and play the waiting game. Especially when it’s related to your health.
How Long Does an Exertion Headache Last?
According to Mayoclinic, exertion headaches can last as little as 5 minutes and as long as 48 hours.
The last exertion headache I had lasted for around 4 to 6 hours. It was also accompanied by a high fever. Fun times.
Most exertion headaches will resolve within 24 hours. If your headache persists for longer than this or is severe, make sure to see a doctor.
From speaking around, exertion headaches seem to be pretty common among hikers, especially those who are just starting out. The exact, primary cause of these headaches is actually still unknown – but theories point to blood vessel dilation in your skull.
Typically, these sorts of headaches happen more frequently when the weather is hot, or in higher altitudes. The (not so) perfect combination for hiking.
Altitude vs Exertion Headache: Which One Is It?
Speaking of high altitudes, how do you tell the difference between an exertion headache and one brought on by changes in elevation?
Well, the main difference is that an altitude headache comes on much slower than an exertion headache. With an altitude headache, you’ll start to feel the effects within 6-24 hours of reaching a high elevation. Specifically, at around 8,000 feet above sea level. Why 8,000 feet? Well, in addition to a shift in barometric pressure, that’s when the oxygen concentration in the air starts to drop significantly.
So if you’re not 8,000 feet above sea level, chances are you’re just dealing with a run-of-the-mill headache from exertion. But if you are that high up and you start to feel a throbbing headache, it’s probably time to head back down to the lower ground. Altititude headaches feel very similar to a hangover.
An exertion headache, on the other hand, can be immediate. So the problem with exertion headaches, there won’t be a specific point where you can say – “Yep, I should be getting a headache any minute now.” It can just hit you out of nowhere, whether in the middle of the hike, at the end of the hike, and hours after your hike.
How Do You Get Rid of An Altitude Headache?
In addition to what we discussed earlier on how to prevent/treat your headache, altitude heachaes require a bit of extra TLC.
For one, you need to make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids – like water and sports drinks. You should also be avoiding any type of alcohol while you’re at a high altitude. This means no happy hour cocktails or beer at the campsite. I know, bummer.
The moment you start to feel the effects of an altitude headache, it’s important to descend to a lower elevation as soon as possible. The increased oxygen will help to ease your headache.
You can also take over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Or, take something specific for altitude, like Acetazolamide.
Can Hiking Cause Migraines?
Migraines and exertion headaches share a lot of similarities. They can both be brought on by weather changes, bright lights, and, you guessed it – strenuous activity, like hiking. They can also be brought on by stress, and hormones.
However, migraines are usually more severe and last for a longer period of time than exertion headaches. A couple of my close relatives suffer from migraines, and it’s absolutely debilitating for them.
Unfortunately, some people are more prone to migraines than others. If you know you are already more prone to migraine attacks, there is a chance for exercise-induced migraines due to an intense hike.
So, yes. An intense hike can bring on exercise-induced migraines.
Unfortunately, headaches are just a part of life. And even the most seasoned hikers aren’t immune to them.
The best way to prevent/treat headaches, whether they’re from exertion or altitude, is to stay hydrated, take breaks often, and carry some over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Although, when it comes to challenging hikes, I won’t tell you to turn it down a notch. Because, where’s the fun in that? 😜