Is Your Diabetes a Pain in the… Head?

An Explanation of the Diabetes Headache

A woman is experiencing a headache

What is causing your diabetes headache? Is it your blood sugars? Your new treatment? What exactly is going on?

You’ve recently been placed on insulin for management of your diabetes. Your head is pounding. You have a history of migraines. Is the headache caused by your diabetes, or is it a migraine?

Well, sometimes it can be hard to tell. However, diabetes can certainly contribute to diabetes headaches.

It is important to note that having diabetes does not mean that you’ll get headaches. However, the more your blood sugar levels fluctuate, the more likely you are to have headaches related to your diabetes.

When your blood sugar has a rapid drop, your brain senses that it doesn’t have enough glucose to function properly and the blood vessels in your brain can then spasm, causing a headache.

When your sugars quickly climb too high, you will feel that familiar lack of concentration and sluggishness (like a food coma). If this goes on too long, your body will try to eliminate excess sugars through increased urination, which can cause dehydration. And, as we know, dehydration can cause headaches.

Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia

  • Hypoglycemia is when your blood sugar level is at or below 70 mg/dl. However, if your blood sugar levels are consistently high, you may have symptoms of hypoglycemia at a higher level. Symptoms of hypoglycemia include headaches (of course!), shakiness, sweatiness, dizziness, anxiety, confusion, and hunger.
  • Hyperglycemia is when your blood sugar level is at or above 180 mg/dl. A headache is a common symptom of hyperglycemia, although often you may have no symptoms associated with hyperglycemia. However, symptoms typically become more apparent the higher the blood sugar level.

When your blood sugar levels vacillate between euglycemia (normal blood sugars), hyperglycemia, and hypoglycemia, you are even more likely to have the classic diabetes headache.

Why? Because “fluctuations in blood sugar trigger headaches due to the response of blood vessels in the brain as a result of other hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. In other words, those blood sugar ups and downs trigger headaches stemming from hormone changes.”

How Do We Treat and Prevent Diabetes Headaches?

First of all, it is extremely important to understand how to treat a low blood sugar level. The “rule of 15” applies:

  • Keep your blood sugar meter handy and check your blood sugar as soon as possible. If it is not available, do not waste time trying to find it – jump to the next step and treat the symptoms instead.
  • If your blood sugar is 70 mg/dl or below (or you are symptomatic without your meter), consume 15 grams of carbohydrate immediately. Examples include four ounces of juice or regular soda, eight ounces of milk, several hard candies (look at the label!), three to four glucose tablets, or one piece of fruit.
  • Wait 15 minutes, then recheck your blood sugar. If it is not above 70 mg/dl, consume another 15 grams of carbohydrate and recheck again in 15 minutes.

It is also worth mentioning that if you have extremely low blood sugars that require emergency treatment (READ: you can’t treat them yourself), you need to do two things.

  1. Ask your physician for a prescription for a glucagon emergency kit (for instructions on how to use it, click here)
  2. Keep track of your blood sugar levels and insulin doses because you likely need a readjustment of your doses.

Additional Ways to Treat Your Diabetes Headache

  • Over-the-counter painkillers can help once the headache has started. If the headaches are frequent, you will want to talk to your doctor about stronger medications and the possibility of any other underlying factors that could be the cause.
  • Ice packs can also help once the headache has already begun.
  • Keeping hydrated is a great way to help ward off headaches. Be sure to get the proper amount of water each day. Eight glasses is still considered to be the minimum amount of water needed per day. But, remember, if you are in hot weather or exerting a lot of energy during exercise or sports, you will need to consume more than that.

Next page: More ways to treat a diabetes headache, and other possible causes of diabetic headaches.

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