Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disease that results in blood sugar, or glucose, abnormalities. This causes a host of symptoms and related complications, some of which can be life-threatening. A common symptom of high or low blood glucose is a headache. Headaches alone aren’t harmful, but they can signal that your blood sugar is out of its target range. If you have frequent headaches, diabetes may be to blame. Find out if diabetes is the cause of your headache so you can take proper action.
Headaches are common in both children and adults. In fact, headaches are the most common source of pain. They’re also a leading cause for days missed from work and school. Headaches are a frequent problem among the American population, but there are numerous causes.
Headaches are classified as being primary or secondary. Primary headaches occur when brain cells or nerves, blood vessels, or muscles around the head send pain signals to the brain. Migraines and tension headaches are common examples.
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are not directly caused by the type of pain signals mentioned above. These types of headaches are attributed to underlying health conditions or medical problems. Diabetes is one cause of secondary headaches. Other causes can include:
- fever or infection
- high blood pressure, or hypertension
- anxiety or stress
- hormone fluctuations, such as those occurring during menstrual cycle
- eye disorders
- structural abnormalities within the brain
Just as causes can vary, the pain associated with secondary headaches can vary. Headaches due to diabetes are often moderate to severe in nature, and are known to occur frequently. These headaches can be a sign that your blood glucose is either too high or too low. Getting your blood sugar under control may be the first step toward relief. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be a helpful second step.
What makes a headache ‘severe’?
Hyperglycemia means high blood glucose. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms don’t usually occur until glucose is above 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Many don’t feel any symptoms even at higher blood sugar levels. A headache from high blood glucose generally takes several days to develop. As a result, the symptoms are often slow to appear.
Headaches are considered an early sign of hyperglycemia. The pain can become more severe as your condition gets worse. Also, if you have a history of hyperglycemia, a headache can be a sign that you need to check your blood sugar.
Other early signs of hyperglycemia include:
- blurry vision
- excessive thirst and dehydration
- increased urination
- excessive hunger
- sores that won’t heal
Hyperglycemia can be managed in certain people with lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise. Some people must also use medications to manage their blood sugar. You will likely find that you have fewer headaches when your blood sugar is controlled.
Low blood glucose, or hypoglycemia, is defined as having blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dL. Unlike hyperglycemia, the symptoms of hypoglycemia are typically sudden. This includes headaches, which may seem to come out of nowhere as your blood sugar decreases. Headaches in such cases are usually accompanied by other symptoms of hypoglycemia, such as:
- excessive sweating
- sudden hunger
- excessive fatigue
- anxiety or confusion
Before you can treat a headache from hypoglycemia, you need to determine whether low blood glucose is the cause. If a blood glucose test determines your blood sugar is low, the American Diabetes Association recommends eating 15 to 20 grams of simple carbohydrates or glucose tablets, and then checking your sugar again in 15 minutes. Once your blood sugar stabilizes, your headache pain may decrease. You may still need to take over-the-counter pain relief if the pain persists. Call your doctor right away if your headache is severe or if you can’t get your blood glucose back up. When left untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to life-threatening complications, such as seizures and coma.
Diabetes certainly isn’t the only cause of headaches. If you have diabetes, your chances of having headaches may be greater than someone who doesn’t have the condition. This is especially the case if your diabetes is uncontrolled. By keeping tabs on your blood glucose, you will likely have fewer headaches as well as other diabetes symptoms. If your headaches persist despite diabetes management, you should talk to your doctor right away.