Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disease that results in blood sugar (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. While headaches alone aren’t harmful, they’re often a sign 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 to get your condition under control.

Understanding Headaches

Headaches are common in both children and adults. In fact, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that headaches are the most common source of pain. This condition is also a leading cause for days missed from work and school. While headaches are prominent among the American population, there are numerous causes and sources.

Headaches are classified as being primary or secondary. Primary headaches occur when neurotransmitters in the brain send pain signals to brain nerves. Migraines and tension headaches are common examples. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are not directly caused by out-of-control brain signals. These types of headaches are attributed to underlying health conditions or medical problems. They occur when nerves in the brain are disrupted. Diabetes is one cause of secondary headaches. Other causes can include:

  • fever and/or infection
  • injury
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • stroke
  • anxiety or stress
  • hormone fluctuations (such as those occurring during menstrual cycle)
  • nerve disorders

Just as causes can vary, the pain associated with secondary headaches can vary substantially. Headaches due to diabetes are likely moderate to severe in nature, while also occurring on a frequent basis. 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.

Hyperglycemia and Headaches

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), and many don’t feel any symptoms. Getting a headache due to elevated blood glucose is generally a process that occurs over several days, so the symptoms are often slow to appear. Headache is considered an early sign of hyperglycemia. The pain can become more severe as your condition worsens. Also, if you have hyperglycemia, a headache can be a sign that you need to check your blood sugar.

Other early signs of hyperglycemia include:

  • sudden fatigue
  • blurry vision
  • excessive thirst and dehydration
  • increased urination
  • excessive hunger
  • sores that won’t heal

Hyperglycemia is managed with lifestyle changes, such as healthy diet and exercise. Some people also use medications to manage their blood sugar. You will likely find that you have fewer headaches when your blood sugar goes back down.

Sudden Headaches in Hypoglycemia

Low blood glucose, or hypoglycemia, is defined by the American Diabetes Association (ADA) as having blood sugar levels below 70 mg/dL. Unlike hyperglycemia, the symptoms of hypoglycemia are typically sudden. This includes headaches, which may seemingly come out of nowhere as your blood sugar decreases. Headaches in such cases are usually accompanied by other symptoms of hypoglycemia such as:

  • dizziness
  • shakiness
  • excessive sweating
  • sudden hunger
  • nausea
  • excessive fatigue
  • weakness
  • anxiety or confusion

Before you can treat a headache from hypoglycemia, you need to determine whether low blood glucose is actually the cause. If a blood glucose test determines your blood sugar is low, the ADA 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 coma.

Is a Bad Headache Diabetes or Something Else?

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 — and other diabetes symptoms. Headaches that persist despite diabetes management should be addressed with your doctor right away.

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