Among the symptoms commonly experienced by people with diabetes, regardless of which type they have, is headaches. Diabetes and headaches often go hand in hand, but what is the connection between the two?
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a medical condition in which people are unable to manage their blood glucose (blood sugar levels) naturally. There are many types of diabetes, including type 1, type 2, and gestational as being the most common.
According to the American Diabetes Association, an estimated 34.2 million Americans, or about 10.5 percent of the population, is currently living with diabetes. Of these, approximately 1.6 million people have type 1 diabetes, formerly referred to as juvenile diabetes, while the remaining majority have type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, or less common types of diabetes.
About 7.3 million people, or more than 1 in 5 people, who have diabetes have not yet been diagnosed with the condition. They are likely experiencing symptoms that are signs of diabetes but aren’t yet aware that they have the condition.
People with type 1 diabetes do not produce any insulin, a naturally occurring hormone made in the pancreas that controls the levels of blood glucose in the body. Type 1 diabetes is actually an autoimmune disease in which the body's immune system attacks the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. After those cells are irreversibly destroyed, the pancreas no longer produces the essential insulin hormone.
Type 2 diabetes is marked by insulin resistance, in which the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin, or decreased insulin production, resulting in elevated blood sugar. It commonly develops in adulthood, but it is possible for children and teens to develop the condition.
Regardless of whether a person is experiencing type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, or one of the more rare types of diabetes, they can experience very high blood sugar levels, known as hyperglycemia, or very low blood sugar levels, known as hypoglycemia.
Headaches can occur as a result of both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia and are often attributed to fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
What causes headaches?
There are many different reasons why people experience headaches. People of all ages can experience headaches, and they are the most common source of pain for people today. Headaches cause millions of days of missed work and school each year.
There are two main types of headaches: primary headaches and secondary headaches. The pain caused by a headache can be moderate to severe regardless of whether it is a result of primary or secondary causes.
Primary headaches are headaches that occur when blood vessels, muscles, cells, or nerves in the head send signals of pain to the brain. Tension headaches and migraine headaches are common examples of primary headaches.
Secondary headaches are not directly caused by an issue in the brain itself and are instead caused by an underlying health condition such as diabetes.
In addition to diabetes, other causes of secondary headaches can include:
Structural issues in the brain
Fever or infection
High blood pressure
Anxiety or stress
How does hyperglycemia cause headaches?
As noted above, hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar levels, can cause headaches. People who have not yet been diagnosed with diabetes or who struggle to manage their blood sugar levels can commonly experience hyperglycemia, which can be dangerous if not addressed.
High blood sugar commonly occurs when an individual does not have enough insulin in their system to cover the carbohydrates eaten to keep their blood sugar normalized. When blood sugar levels are too high, damage to the blood vessels and nerves can occur. If the body is unable to use the glucose in the blood for energy, it starts to burn fat instead, which can cause a buildup of waste products called ketones. This buildup can lead to a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis, which can warrant a trip to the emergency room.
Most people do not experience symptoms of hyperglycemia until their blood sugar is over 200 mg/dL, and symptoms, including headaches, may be slow to appear.
Headaches can take several days to develop and are considered a sign of hyperglycemia. If you are experiencing a headache caused by hyperglycemia, it may be a signal that your blood sugar levels are too high.
Other symptoms of hyperglycemia include:
Slow healing wounds
How does hypoglycemia cause headaches?
Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is said to occur at blood glucose levels lower than 70 mg/dL. The body relies on glucose as its primary source of fuel for many cells, including the cells in the brain. Without an adequate amount of fuel, the body is unable to function properly and symptoms typically develop quickly, including headaches.
With low blood sugar, you may feel perfectly fine one minute and then develop a bad headache just moments later. However, you are also likely to experience other symptoms of hypoglycemia at the same time.
In addition to headache, symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
Anxiety or confusion
People with diabetes can experience hypoglycemia if they use too much insulin or other medications to manage their diabetes. Severe hypoglycemia can cause life-threatening complications, including seizures, loss of consciousness, or coma, so it’s important to know how to recognize the signs and take action when needed.
Rapid-absorbing glucose powder and other fast-acting carb and sugar products can come in handy when this happens. Regularly experiencing hypoglycemia is a sign that a person may need to make changes to their diabetes care plan.
How do you treat a headache caused by hyperglycemia?
One key to treating and preventing headaches caused by high blood sugar levels, i.e. hyperglycemia, is to lower your blood sugar back down to normal levels.
The two easiest ways to lower blood sugar right now are to drink water and exercise.
Drinking water can help flush out excess glucose, not to mention that staying hydrated is a key part of overall diabetes care. On that note, hyperglycemic headaches can often be caused by dehydration that results from the body trying to flush that excess glucose without receiving more water to make up for what’s been lost through urine. So, it’s no wonder that drinking water during a hyperglycemic headache can make a huge difference in a short amount of time!
Exercise as minimal as a brisk walk after lunch is another quick way to encourage the body to turn glucose into energy and lower blood glucose levels. This is especially helpful for those with type 2 diabetes as the physical activity can help increase insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar in that way as well!
It’s important to note that exercise may not be safe for people with type 1 diabetes in certain situations. If you have type 1 diabetes, make sure to check your urine for ketones before exercising. If you have ketones in your urine, you should not exercise and should contact your doctor immediately, as exercising could unintentionally increase your blood sugar levels.
How do you treat a headache caused by hypoglycemia?
Headaches are a common symptom of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, and can come on suddenly.
If you suspect that your headache is the result of low blood sugar, check your blood sugar to confirm that this is the case before attempting to treat your headache.
People with diabetes who have headaches when they wake up may be experiencing nocturnal hypoglycemia. If a blood sugar test indicates that you are experiencing a headache as a result of hypoglycemia, the American Diabetes Association recommends consuming 15 grams of simple carbohydrates or glucose and rechecking glucose levels after 15 minutes. If blood sugar is still too low, consume another 15g of carbs, being cautious not to consume too much. If you eat too much to treat low blood sugar, you may risk binging and end up chasing high blood sugar as a result. Using this method, the headache should subside once your blood sugar levels return to the normal range.
Final Tips & Takeaway
In addition to the treatment options mentioned above, people may also take over the counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, to provide short term relief from their headache symptoms. However, these painkillers will not address the underlying cause of the headache, which is likely blood sugar levels outside of the normal range.
People with diabetes can best avoid headaches by carefully monitoring their blood sugar levels, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, staying hydrated, and using medications at prescribed intervals to manage their blood sugar. Use of a diabetes wallet that contains all of the diabetes management supplies a patient requires can be useful in ensuring that patients always have access to the supplies they need in the event of high or low blood sugar levels.
For more helpful info about managing your diabetes, check out the Diathrive blog for advice, guidance, and answers from Diathrive staff and diabetes educators!