Last updated on July 15th, 2016
Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder that causes high blood glucose levels and a host of secondary symptoms, some of which can be dangerous. A less serious side effect of having type 1 or type 2 diabetes is having a headache. You can have a headache in diabetes any time that your blood sugar levels are too high or too low.
While headaches in diabetes aren’t inherently dangerous, they can become a signal to you that the blood sugar values are out of control. If you are experiencing a headache and also have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you should check your blood sugar right away and take measures to bring your blood sugar under good control.
Headaches are extremely common and can be seen in both adults and children. Headaches are perhaps the most common type of pain a person can have. They are a major cause of work loss as well as missed days from school. There are many causes of headaches, including out of control diabetes and low blood sugar.
Headaches can be primary or secondary headaches. Primary headaches have no underlying cause but occur when the nerve cells of the brain, the muscles around the scalp, or the blood vessels in the brain send pain signals to the part of the brain that registers pain. Common primary headaches include tension headaches and migraine headaches, which may or may not be related to having diabetes.
Secondary headaches are those headaches that have some kind of underlying cause. One cause of secondary headaches is diabetes. Other things that can trigger secondary headaches include the following:
- Brain abnormalities such as an aneurysm or brain tumor
- Problems with the eyes and vision
- Hormonal changes, such as those seen in women from their menstrual cycle
- Stress or anxiety
- Hemorrhagic stroke
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Head injury
- Infection somewhere in the body
- Weather changes
- Being unable to sleep
- Alcohol use
- Grinding the teeth
- Bad posture
The pain caused by secondary headaches, such as diabetic headaches, can vary. Diabetic headaches are often not very mild but are usually moderate to severe, resulting in an inability to function in activities of daily living. The headaches, as mentioned, are usually a sign that the blood glucose levels are too low or too high. The best treatment for a diabetes-associated headache is to bring the blood glucose levels back into the normal range.
If you get your blood sugars into the normal range and still have a headache, you can take an over the counter pain reliever, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Very rarely would the headache be so intractable that you would need a stronger pain reliever, such as an opioid medication.
Diabetic Headaches Caused by Hyperglycemia
Headaches from having elevated blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia) don’t usually occur unless the blood glucose levels are higher than 200 milligrams per deciliter. Many diabetics won’t have a headache even at this level but have headaches when the blood glucose level is markedly high, in the range of 400 milligrams per deciliter. It usually takes several days before a diabetic headache to occur when high blood glucose levels are the cause.
The headache comes on gradually and is an early sign that your blood sugar level needs attention. The higher your blood glucose level is, the greater is the seriousness of the headache. Along with a headache from high blood sugar, you may experience other symptoms caused by hyperglycemia, including non-healing sores, increased feelings of hunger, increased thirst, dehydration, excessive urination, blurry vision, and tiredness.
You can decrease the incidence of headaches by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and taking your diabetic medication as prescribed so that the blood sugar levels stay in good control. If you are an insulin-dependent diabetic, you need to talk to your doctor about changing your insulin dosage so that the blood sugars stay within a normal range.
Diabetic Headaches caused by Hypoglycemia
You can have a diabetic headache from having blood sugar levels that are too low. You don’t usually get a headache from hypoglycemia until the blood glucose level drops to 50 milligrams per deciliter or less. While the headache from high blood glucose levels often come on gradually, those headaches you get from low blood glucose levels is usually of a sudden onset. You will experience the sudden onset of a headache along with other signs and symptoms of low blood sugar, including the following:
- Confusion or anxiety
- Feeling excessively tired
- Nausea and vomiting
- The sudden onset of hunger
- Feeling excessively sweaty
Prior to treating your diabetic headache from low blood glucose levels, you need to check a glucose level to see if this is the cause of your headache. If the blood glucose level is less than 70 milligrams per deciliter, you need to eat about 15 to 20 grams of glucose or simple carbohydrates, according to the American Diabetic Association.
After you have eaten or had something to drink with sugar in it, you need to check your blood sugar again after 15 minutes have gone by. If the blood sugar is still low, you need to eat or drink some more and keep checking your blood sugar until it is normal. Even then, you may still have a headache. If this is the case, you need to take some kind of over the counter pain reliever to control the headache pain. If you can’t get your blood sugar into a normal range, call 911 for medical assistance.
Just because you have diabetes, it doesn’t mean that your headache is from low or high blood sugar readings. If your blood sugar is normal and you still have a headache, the headache is not likely due to your diabetes and you need to look for another reason behind having your headache. Take an over the counter headache remedy and, if this doesn’t work, seek medical advice and alternative treatment for the headache.
The diabetic headache can be secondary to wild fluctuations in blood sugar and not necessarily from the absolute value of the blood sugar level. If this is the case, your blood sugar reading can be anywhere from low to high and you need to talk to your doctor about a diabetic treatment that will keep the blood glucose levels more steady.
- Is diabetes to blame for your headache? http://www.healthline.com/health/diabetes/headache#Findrelief5. Accessed 5/22/16.
- Are your blood sugar levels giving you a headache? http://www.diabeticconnect.com/diabetes-information-articles/general/338-are-your-blood-sugar-levels-giving-you-headaches. Accessed 5/22/16.