Can diabetes cause headaches?
Quick answer. Yes. In fact, though not the most common symptom of diabetes, headaches can be a warning sign that diabetes has developed in someone who is undiagnosed. For the purposes of this post, however, we’re going to examine headaches as they relate to individuals who have been diagnosed with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.
Is there a relationship between diabetes and headaches and, if so, what can you do to alleviate them or prevent them from happening to you in the first place?
What is a diabetes-related headache?
There are two main categories when it comes to headaches. They are classified as either a primary headache or a secondary headache. What’s the difference?
A primary headache is pain that is not related to another medical condition. For example, a tension headache or, in many cases, migraine headaches are not related to an underlying cause or health issue.
A secondary headache is directly related to a specific medical condition or health concern. It would not exist without the root cause. Headaches related to diabetes are secondary headaches. People experience them because they have diabetes and the associated blood sugar control challenges. Other secondary headache causes include infections, high blood pressure, fever due to illness, tumors, and trauma to the body.
What causes a diabetes-related headache?
There are several ways diabetes can lead to headaches. As you might guess, most of these revolve around mismanaged blood sugar and some common diabetes-related complications.
Hyperglycemia and Headaches
High blood sugar occurs when the body doesn’t have enough insulin or can use it properly to process glucose from the bloodstream and turn it into energy. For those already diagnosed and living with diabetes, hyperglycemia might occur by not taking enough insulin, eating too many carbohydrates, or by missing an insulin injection.
One of the symptoms of hyperglycemia is frequent urination, which can lead to dehydration. Studies have shown that this sudden loss of fluid can lead to the rapid onset of migraines and severe “thunderclap” headaches, which come on suddenly and can peak in terms of severe pain within 60 seconds.
Hypoglycemia and Headaches
Many people with diabetes experience low blood sugar episodes (hypoglycemia) that can also lead to headaches. Causes of low blood sugar can be administering too much insulin, performing strenuous physical activity, or skipping a meal.
Individuals who experience frequent lows are more likely to experience chronic migraine headaches. This can occur because the body releases a neuropeptide that is associated with inflammation. Low blood sugar also prompts the release of fight-or-flight hormones that can lead to headaches due to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension is a commonly related complication of diabetes, particularly the Type 2 form of the disease, which is also often linked to obesity. Studies suggest that individuals with diabetes who are also obese and suffer from high blood pressure are more likely to experience chronic headaches.
More than half of all individuals with Type 2 diabetes experience obstructive sleep apnea (OCA), a disruption of oxygen to the brain during sleeping hours. Sleep apnea leads to morning headaches in more than 25% of all people who have it. The condition has also been linked to chronic migraines.
This type of headache is rare and is distinguished by intense head pain, especially at the base of the skull. Sufferers can also experience pain behind one eye and blurry vision. There are several conditions that can cause Occipital Neuralgia, and one of them is diabetes. Prolonged high blood sugar can damage the body nerves (neuropathy). While most cases are felt peripherally (in the extremities), sometimes the damage occurs in the occipital nerves, which can lead to these intense headaches.
What to do if you think you’re experiencing A diabetes-related headache?
The first thing to do is test your blood sugar to determine if you are experiencing a spike or dip in blood glucose. If not, then it may not be related to your diabetes.
If You Test Low
Consuming 15 grams of carbs, such as in a glucose tablet or gel pack, can bring your blood sugar back into the target range and may alleviate the headache. Follow the “15-15” rule. Consume 15 grams of carbs, wait 15 minutes, check your blood sugar again. If you’re still low, repeat the process until you hit your target range.
If You Test High
There are a few things you can try. Sometimes a little moderate activity can lower blood sugar enough to alleviate a headache. Two, hydrating can help. Three, a dose of insulin can bring levels back down to normal.
Warning! If your blood sugar tests 240 mg/dL or higher, do a urine test for ketones. You may be experiencing ketoacidosis, a condition that requires medical attention. Do not exercise as this might inadvertently increase blood sugar. Call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.
How to prevent diabetes related headaches
The best treatment for diabetes-related headaches is doing what you can do to avoid them in the first place. In other words, keep your blood sugar under control as best as possible by adhering to your doctor-prescribed blood sugar testing and treatment plan, eating a diabetes-healthy diet, and exercising regularly to maintain a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol intake, and, if you smoke, taking the appropriate measures to quit. Also, be sure to get enough quality sleep, as a lack of sleep can impact blood sugar levels.
Treating Diabetes Related Headaches
Over-the-counter pain relief medicine, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help relieve mild headaches, provided your doctor has cleared you for these medications. Many people with diabetes also have kidney damage, which makes many medicines unsafe to use.
If you find yourself suffering from frequent and persistent headaches, particularly if you are also having difficulty keeping blood glucose in check, see your diabetes physician about treatment options. A small adjustment to your diabetes management plan may just provide the solution.
We hope you found this post helpful. At Diabetic Warehouse, we’re committed to helping those with diabetes manage blood sugar with a complete selection of testing and treatment supplies at prices up to 65% less than those found at most pharmacies and suppliers.
Diabetic Warehouse is a trusted supplier of diabetes care products and accessories. For more information and to explore a complete range of products, including glucose meters and test strips, insulin syringes, pen needles, continuous glucose monitoring systems, and more, visit www.diabeticwarehouse.org.