The ebb and flow of blood sugar levels can result in headaches, whether sugar is high (hyperglycemia) or low (hypoglycemia.) The mechanisms are different, but the pain is the same.
Types of Headaches
Headaches are the most common cause of pain experienced by otherwise healthy people, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Diabetics have also been found to have more frequent headaches than the general population. Generally, headaches are classified as primary or secondary.
A primary headache occurs when neurotransmitters in the brain send signals to certain groups of nerves. Migraine and stress headaches are examples of this type.
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are the result of some disease or disorder within the body that causes disruption to the nervous system. Diabetes is one of these diseases.
Doctors have not determined the exact process for every different type of headache, but they have a pretty good idea of what causes most of them.
Your brain runs on glucose, using as much as 25% of the glucose circulating in the body. The brain can sense when there is an inadequate supply. Despite sending off a lot of commands to different parts of the body – to the liver for increased glycogen production, the pancreas for insulin production, and so forth - blood vessels in the brain constrict, or spasm. This spasming can be very painful. Brain cells starved for glucose can also become irritated, causing pain.
When there is too much sugar in the bloodstream, the body seeks to get rid of it. The kidneys work harder, pushing out more urine. This increase in urine production can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, which in turn can lead to a headache.
As with peripheral neuropathy which many persons with diabetes experience in their limbs, there have been cases of neuropathic inflammation of nerves in the brain, known as occipital neuropathy. The cause is the same, high blood glucose levels damaging nerve endings. When pain cannot be managed by anti-inflammatories or other pain medications, treatment generally consists of nerve blocks with corticosteroids.
Other types of neuropathic headaches can be the result of optic nerve inflammation or inflammation of various nerve roots, peripheral nerves or cranial nerves.
Preventing or Treating Headaches
The single best thing we can do for diabetes-related headaches is keep our blood glucose levels steady. This prevents a lot of the damage that can trigger headache pain.
Over-the-counter pain remedies are generally effective. Resting and restricting activities during a headache can also help. If these actions don’t provide relief, it is appropriate to see your doctor for further help and guidance.
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