Diabetes does not often cause headaches. However, while headaches are not usually dangerous in themselves, they may indicate problems with blood sugar control in a person with diabetes.
People with diabetes are unable to control blood glucose through the hormone insulin.
Over time, periods of continuously high or low blood sugar can lead to serious and even life-threatening complications, such as heart disease and kidney failure.
Recognizing headaches as a result of poor blood sugar control can be a first step to preventing more severe health problems.
In this article, we look at the connection between diabetes and headaches and suggests ways to relieve diabetes-induced headaches.
Not everyone with diabetes will experience headaches.
People with a recent diagnosis of diabetes may experience headaches more often because they are still trying to manage their blood sugar levels and find a regimen that works.
For others with diabetes, headaches typically develop because of changes in blood sugar levels.
A headache can indicate that blood sugar levels are too high, which doctors call hyperglycemia. Alternatively, blood sugar levels may be too low, which doctors call hypoglycemia.
The higher the fluctuations in blood glucose levels, the more likely it is that a person with diabetes will experience headaches.
Headaches a person can link to these fluctuations might be a result of changing levels of hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones may constrict the blood vessels in the brain and cause discomfort.
Doctors consider blood sugar levels lower than 70 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) to be an indicator of hypoglycemia. This is a serious condition, as glucose is the primary source of fuel for many cells in the body, including those in the brain.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia usually develop suddenly and can be much more obvious than the symptoms of hyperglycemia.
In addition to headaches, some of the symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- blurred vision
- racing heart
Hypoglycemia can occur in people with diabetes if they take too much insulin or do not eat enough carbohydrates.
It is essential to manage diabetes carefully and treat symptoms of hypoglycemia quickly. This can help prevent headaches and more serious compilations.
Hyperglycemia results from too much glucose circulating in the blood. In type 1 diabetes, a lack of insulin production causes spikes in blood sugar. In type 2 diabetes, the body cannot use insulin correctly.
Additional risk factors include:
- a poor diet, high in sugars and fats
- a sedentary lifestyle
- stress, which releases the hormone cortisol that increases blood sugar levels
Symptoms of hyperglycemia are often slow to appear. However, a headache may be an early symptom of hyperglycemia.
Other symptoms include:
- blurred vision
- excessive thirst
- increased urination
- slow healing wounds
Hyperglycemia is a serious condition that requires rapid management, as high levels of glucose can damage the blood vessels and nerves. Without treatment, high blood glucose might make the body resistant to the effects of insulin, a hormone that allows cells to absorb glucose.
Without glucose absorption into cells, the body burns fat instead. This process may lead to a buildup of ketones, waste products that develops when the body burns fat for energy.
A buildup of ketones can cause a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, which can lead to coma and even death.
A person can manage hyperglycemia with dietary changes and medications. Keeping blood sugar levels under control will reduce the risk of headaches from diabetes.
Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen, may help with short-term headache relief.
A person should speak to a doctor first to assess any current effects of diabetes on their kidneys, as people with kidney damage should avoid taking certain painkillers, including ibuprofen.
To stop headaches that diabetes causes, it is important to control blood glucose levels and practice effective diabetes management. This can involve making lifestyle or dietary changes and adjusting dosages or types of medication.
A person with diabetes should always consult a doctor before making changes to their diet, physical activity regimen, or medication.
Treating headaches from hypoglycemia
The first step in treating a hypoglycemia-induced headache is to confirm that the pain is occurring due to low blood glucose. A blood glucose test can verify this issue.
Taking a blood glucose test is especially important for people with diabetes who wake up with a headache in the morning, as it can be a sign of nocturnal hypoglycemia.
The ADA recommend that people with low blood sugar consume 15 grams of simple carbohydrates or glucose before rechecking levels after 15 minutes.
Once blood sugar returns to the target range, the headache pain should reduce.
Treating headaches from hyperglycemia
Exercise can help relieve a headache from high blood glucose levels.
If a person with type 1 diabetes is concerned about their level of ketones, it is important to check their urine for ketones first, especially if blood sugar levels reach 240 mg/dl.
People with ketones in their urine should not exercise and must contact their doctor immediately. Exercise could have the unintentional effect of increasing blood sugar levels.
A person can also help prevent hyperglycemia headaches by maintaining a healthy weight, following a nutritious and balanced diet, and taking the correct medications.
Headaches can signal periods of either high or low blood glucose that can lead to life-threatening complications without treatment. People with diabetes who experience frequent headaches should, therefore, consult their doctor.
It is vital to contact a doctor immediately if the following becomes apparent:
- A headache is severe and impacts daily life.
- Blood sugar levels do not return to the necessary range.
- Other severe or persistent symptoms develop alongside headaches.
According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders that the International Headache Society publish, there are over 150 types of headache.
Broadly, headaches can be classified as either primary or secondary:
- Primary headaches: These do not relate to another medical condition. Examples of primary headaches include migraines and tension headaches.
- Secondary headaches: Underlying medical conditions or health issues cause these headaches. They include the type of headache that people with diabetes can experience.
Other causes of secondary headaches include:
- high blood pressure
- hormonal fluctuations
- nerve disorders
- overuse of medication
The pain of either primary or secondary headaches can vary in severity and duration. Some people may not experience headaches often while others might have a headache on several days each week.
Other symptoms may occur, depending on the type of headache a person experiences. For example, migraines might also lead to nausea and increasing sensitivity to sound or light.
Diabetes headaches tend to cause moderate to severe levels of pain. A severe headache is one that significantly affects a person's ability to resume normal function in everyday life.
Not every person with diabetes will experience headaches, and diabetes is not the only cause of headaches.
People with diabetes who manage their diabetes well and keep their blood sugar levels under control are less likely to experience headaches. Avoiding hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia is the best way to reduce headaches and other diabetes symptoms, as well as more severe complications.
If headaches are severe or persist despite keeping blood sugar levels optimum, a person should seek further advice from their doctor.