When Pandora opened her box, she released, amongst other things, Algos – Pain. An evil spirit, the Ancient Greeks believed that Algos was the cause of headaches.
And certainly, having a headache does feel like having an evil spirit hammering away inside your head. Ow. It hurts thinking about it.
It affects many: WHO estimates that about 50% of the world’s population will have experienced a headache within the last year.
With diabetes and headaches in particular, headaches can occur as a result of conditions associated with diabetes, including both hypo- and hyperglycemia, along with other circumstances.
Heads up: we’re going to turn the topic of diabetes and headaches on its head. Keep a level head by finding out why headaches happen with diabetes, and how to treat them!
Headaches: the Basics
Before going ahead with diabetes and headaches, let’s have a quick look at what makes a head ache!
According to Migraine & Headache Australia, headaches are divided into the primary and secondary.
Primary headaches are the most commonly known, including migraines (moderate to severe pulsating on one side of the head), cluster headaches (so-called because they occur in cluster periods on one side of the head, often around the eye), and tension headaches (neck and scalp muscles becoming tense).
It’s not exactly clear why primary headaches happen, but it’s often to do with chemical changes in the head. What is clear about primary headaches is that they are essentially only caused by the head itself.
Meanwhile, secondary headaches have other causes: namely illnesses or other conditions. The causes of secondary headaches are manifold, ranging from sinus infections, to aneurysms, to hangovers. In some form or other, these conditions all affect the blood vessels, nerves, or muscles in the head.
Since headaches can be caused by diabetes, such headaches (diabetic headaches) would be considered secondary headaches.
Why are Diabetes and Headaches Linked?
In essence, diabetes and headaches are linked because the high or low blood glucose/sugar associated with diabetes results in changes in the head. For more detail, let’s get our heads round the main causes!
(And for treatment, keep reading.)
Hyperglycemia is when blood glucose levels rise above 7.0 mmol/L or 126 mg/dL. One of the typical symptoms of high blood glucose is a headache.
There are a few different reasons why this happens. The first is low energy. For people with diabetes, their own insulin is not doing the job of making glucose enter the cells (thus leading to high blood glucose).
Without that glucose, the body doesn’t get the energy it needs. And without that energy, the body isn’t getting the fuel it needs to function. This includes the brain; headaches can be a sign that the brain isn’t getting energy.
Hyperglycemia can also cause headaches because of dehydration. Essentially, the body tries to flush the excess glucose out through the urine, meaning more bathroom visits, and less fluid in the body. The brain needs fluid to function.
A headache being a signal of high blood glucose is such that people who haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes should always be aware. A headache could be one of the tell-tale early signs of diabetes.
Hypoglycemia is the opposite of hyperglycemia. It’s where blood glucose is too low: below 4.0 mmol/L or 70 mg/dL. Low blood glucose and headaches are equally concerned with low energy.
With low blood glucose, the body is also not getting enough energy because there is simply not enough glucose in the system. And the brain suffers because of that. The head hurts because the pain receptors are triggered: it’s the brain sending a signal that it needs energy.
What happens when blood sugar is low is that additional symptoms are experienced, such as dizziness, difficulty concentrating, or feeling irritable. It makes sense that these are the symptoms of low blood sugar since the brain is not functioning at full capacity.
Poor sleep might not be the main issue associated with diabetes, but many with diabetes do suffer from a lack of sleep. The reasons, which are outlined in our post Diabetes and Sleep, are often nocturnal hypo- and hyperglycemia or even sleep apnea.
The Migraine Trust writes of the balance between wakefulness and sleep: if this balance is tipped, the brain starts responding with headaches.
As for why headaches are a response: the Migraine Trust offers the theory that if you have a headache, you are forced to stop moving, thereby forcing you to rest and to get the sleep you’re missing.
Many with diabetes will have been hit over the head with the fact that neuropathy could occur later in life. With too much high blood glucose, nerve damage can occur in the long-term.
If a person does have neuropathy, they might get a neuropathic headache. This is where the inflamed nerves in the brain lead to pain signals being activated.
High blood pressure
With diabetes and headaches, it’s slightly less likely that the headache will have been caused by high blood pressure.
Nonetheless, high blood pressure is a condition worth considering for those with diabetes. High blood glucose has the potential to damage arteries over time, leading to hardening, and thus, higher pressure.
This also applies to the arteries – and general blood supply – in the head. However, headaches from high blood pressure usually only occur when blood pressure is dangerously high, and when medical attention should be sought swiftly.
How to Treat Diabetes and Headaches
Diabetic headaches stem from different conditions surrounding diabetes. Yet, these headaches all have diabetes in common, meaning that treatment should focus on managing diabetes.
In other words, in order to treat a diabetic headache, the diabetes should be treated.
Headaches caused by hypo- or hyperglycemia can be treated immediately with the standard methods for dealing with low or high blood sugar.
When looking for how to fix low blood sugar, carbs should be taken. When looking for how to reduce blood sugar level immediately, insulin is usually taken (although some might take blood-sugar-lowering pills). And don’t forget to drink plenty of water!
Calculating the carbs or insulin you need can be quite the headache. See how Hedia can take that off your mind with its carb and insulin recommendations (and much more). Download Hedia at the App Store or Google Play!
Long-term stable blood sugar will also reduce the problems associated with neuropathy and high blood pressure, and will alleviate symptoms associated with those conditions – including headaches. For tips on general blood sugar management, see How to keep Blood Sugar Stable.
In some cases of neuropathic headaches, the pain might be severe enough that some form of pain-killer might be needed. Over-the-counter headache pills might not be enough in these cases; certain steroid medications can dull the pain instead.
Certain drugs might also be prescribed, such as amitriptyline, a kind of antidepressant which is additionally used to treat other conditions including migraines.
Do speak to a doctor to figure out how any medication will interfere with your current diabetes medication. But most importantly, focus on getting blood sugars back to safe levels!
Peace of mind: Achieved ✅
Getting to the bottom of diabetic headaches should give some peace of mind: you’ll know that they usually can be treated along with your general diabetes treatment. Plus, it could give you literal peace of mind when you avoid headaches in the future.