Is Diabetes to Blame for Your Headaches?
We all know that diabetes can lead to serious health complications, including heart disease, kidney disease and nerve damage. We also know that the best way to avoid these complications is by staying on top of our doctor-prescribed blood sugar testing and treatment plans.
However, there’s another complication associated with diabetes that’s not as often talked about - the link between diabetes and headaches.
Now, before you jump to any conclusions, just because you experience the occasional headache does not automatically mean that your diabetes is the culprit. There are many reasons people get headaches, including stress and tension, fever, and high blood pressure.
In fact, headaches are the most common source of pain among both adults and children in the United States, and the leading cause of missed days at work and school. Clearly, not everyone who gets headaches has diabetes. However, there is a definite link between the disease and headaches related to both hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (blood sugar that is too low). This is important because if you are living with diabetes and experiencing frequent headaches it could mean that your blood sugar is not being managed effectively.
Two Types of Headaches
Headaches in general are classified as either primary or secondary. Primary headaches are what most people find themselves popping aspirin or ibuprofen to wish away. Primary headaches occur when nerves, blood vessels, or muscles surrounding the head send pain signals to the brain.
Secondary headaches are not caused by direct pain signals sent to the brain. Rather, they are the result of underlying health conditions and diabetes is counted among them.
The pain associated with secondary headaches due to diabetes tends to be moderate but can become severe. These headaches can also occur frequently because they are likely related to mismanaged diabetes resulting in blood sugar that is either too high or too low.
Headaches Due to Elevated Blood Sugar
When there is too much blood sugar circulating in the blood it leads to a condition known as hyperglycemia. What is too high? According to the Mayo Clinic, high blood sugar usually doesn’t have any symptoms at all until levels reach 180 to 200 milligrams per deciliter. Additionally, hypoglycemia is a condition that usually develops slowly over several days or even weeks, and many individuals don’t feel any symptoms of hypoglycemia until the condition becomes dire.
Here’s the good news. One of the earlier possible signs of hyperglycemia is a headache. It can precede other symptoms, such as fatigue, blurry vision, excessive thirst, and increased urination. The point is, that headache you’ve been getting might be a sign that your blood sugar is elevated. So, if you are living with diabetes and experience a headache that seems to get worse over time (as you blood sugar continues to elevate), stop and check your blood sugar right away. If you use a glucose meter and test strips, it’s time for a finger prick. If you use a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system, you should be alerted when your blood sugar becomes too high. If not and you experience a persistent headache, it might be a good idea to confirm your blood glucose levels with a glucose meter.
If you test your blood sugar and it’s not overly high, you might be able to relieve that headache with a little activity, which tends to lower blood sugar. Or you might need to adjust your insulin dosage or dietary intake. If the headache persists, see your diabetes physician because prolonged hyperglycemia can lead to serious health concerns, including ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition that will require immediate emergency care.
Headaches Due to Low Blood Sugar
According to the Mayo Clinic, low blood sugar episodes occur when blood glucose drops below 70 milligrams per deciliter. This too can lead to headaches, the big difference between hypoglycemic headaches and those caused by hyperglycemia being the suddenness of the onset. Headaches caused by a drop in blood sugar are anything but gradual, and often seem like they came out of nowhere. These headaches are often accompanied by additional symptoms, including dizziness, irritability, fatigue and sudden hunger.
Again, the first step to diagnosing a possible hypoglycemic headache is to determine if your blood sugar is actually too low. If you use a glucose meter and test strips, get it out and test your blood sugar right away. If you use a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system, you should be alerted when your blood sugar suddenly drops. If not and you experience a headache, it might be a good idea to confirm your blood glucose levels with a glucose meter.
Treating a headache brought on by low blood sugar is a bit easier than treating one caused by high blood sugar. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends following what they call the 15-15 rule.
Consume 15 grams of carbohydrates to raise your blood sugar. This equates to a 4-ounce glass of juice, a tablespoon of honey, or a few glucose tabs (see instructions).
Then wait 15 minutes and retest your blood sugar. If you’re in the target range, you’ve done your job and your headache should eventually begin to lessen. If your blood sugar is still below 70 milligrams per deciliter, consume another 15 grams of carbs and retest 15 minutes later. Essentially, you repeat the process until your blood sugar level is out of the hypoglycemic range.
If you cannot get your glucose levels back into the normal range or if your headache just won’t go away, see your diabetes physician right away. Left untreated, hypoglycemia can lead to serious complications, including diabetic coma.
How to Avoid Diabetes-Related Headaches?
The best thing you can do to lower your risk for any and all diabetes-related complications is to stick to your doctor-prescribed health and treatment plan. Test your blood sugar regularly. Follow your doctor’s medication instructions to the letter, including taking insulin injections by syringe or insulin pen according to your personal plan. Eat a diabetes-friendly diet. Get in your 150 minutes of activity each week, and never deviate from your treatment plan without first consulting with your diabetes physician.
Living with diabetes comes down to maintaining and controlling your blood sugar. If you can do it successfully and consistently, life might have its hiccups, but you’ll likely avoid any major headaches.
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