Diabetes Headache: Why Does It Happen

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
September 15, 2022

Diabetes does not frequently cause headaches. Headaches that occur because of diabetes are usually a sign that blood sugar is either too high or too low. In this article, we’ll discuss how headaches can feel with hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia, how to find relief, and how to know when you should seek medical care.

Diabetes and Headaches

Headache is not a common symptom of diabetes. However, they can be more common in certain cases:

  • When someone has recently started treatment for diabetes and is experiencing blood sugar changes
  • When blood sugar levels are too high or too low
  • As a side effect of medication for diabetes, like metformin

Headaches that are caused by blood sugar that is too high or too low can be caused from changes to hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine. These can lead to changes in blood vessel dilation in the brain, which can increase pressure and cause head pain. Some researchers have tried to establish a link between migraine and type 2 diabetes, but a large population study found that headaches in people who have diabetes are more likely associated with factors like back or neck pain or mental health conditions.

A small study of 31 people did find a link between elevated glucose levels and migraines, but the study size was so small that larger clinical studies are needed to determine conclusively if there is a connection.

Headaches that occur as a result of blood sugar that is not balanced are referred to as secondary headaches. This is because they happen as a result of a different condition. Primary headaches are not caused by other conditions or disorders.

Concerned about diabetes? Chat with a medical provider through K Health.
Get started

Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia is the medical term for high blood sugar. It is defined as glucose levels that are higher than 125 mg/dL when fasting or higher than 180 mg/dL two hours after a meal. It can be caused by many things, including:

  • A lack of insulin production in type 1 diabetes
  • Insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes
  • High intake of refined sugar or carbohydrates
  • Low level of physical activity or exercise
  • Elevated stress levels

Hyperglycemia does not cause immediate symptoms. A headache can often be a first sign, and may continue to get worse if blood sugar goes untreated. Other signs of high blood sugar levels are:

Even though it does not cause immediate symptoms, hyperglycemia is serious and needs prompt treatment to avoid complications. When glucose stays too high for too long, blood vessels and nerves can sustain permanent damage. Other organs can be damaged, too.

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia is the medical term for blood sugar that is too low. Levels that are below 70 mg/dL are considered hypoglycemic. Low blood sugar can quickly become serious since the brain relies on glucose to function. It can cause symptoms much more quickly than hyperglycemia. It can become a medical emergency if it goes untreated.

Signs of hypoglycemia include:

  • Headaches
  • Blurry vision
  • Feeling anxious or panicked
  • Chills
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Physical weakness or fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Irritability
  • Racing heart
  • Seizures
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Passing out or losing consciousness

Hypoglycemia can happen for a few reasons, including taking too much diabetes medication, not eating enough carbohydrates, or getting more physical activity than usual without compensating with food. It should be treated with 15-20 grams of simple carbohydrates.

Blood sugar levels should be retested after 20 minutes. If blood sugar levels do not respond, get medical care. Hypoglycemia that is left untreated can lead to serious complications, like seizure or coma. While hypoglycemia is more common in type 1 diabetes, it can happen in type 2 diabetes or gestational diabetes.

Different types of headaches

Even if you have diabetes, it is possible to get headaches for many reasons. Stress, weather changes, food sensitivities or allergies, hypertension (high blood pressure), illness, and hormones can all cause headaches unrelated to blood glucose levels.

By controlling blood sugar, it can be easier to determine what is causing a headache if one does occur.

How to Get Relief

If you get a headache from diabetes, it is important to first check and treat blood sugar imbalances. If head pain persists, over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can provide relief. People who have kidney problems should not take ibuprofen unless directed by their medical provider.

In addition to OTC pain medication, headaches may respond to home care such as:

  • Staying properly hydrated
  • Getting fresh air
  • Aromatherapy or topical application of peppermint essential oil
  • Resting in a cool, dark room
  • Deep breathing and relaxation exercises
Concerned about diabetes? Chat with a medical provider through K Health.
Get started

When to Seek Medical Attention for Headaches

If you have diabetes and experience headaches often, see your medical provider. Your medication or treatment plan may need to be adjusted.

If you experience headaches and have not been diagnosed with diabetes, you should see a medical provider if you have frequent headaches that recur, are worsening, are interfering with your daily life, or are accompanied by other symptoms such as vision changes or nausea.

Get immediate medical care at an emergency room if you experience any of the following:

  • A sudden headache that is severe
  • Vision changes
  • Problems speaking, walking, or remembering
  • A severe headache that occurs within 1 week after a head injury or fall
  • Repeated vomiting along with a headache
  • Change in mental status or level of consciousness with a headache

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable virtual primary care with K Health?

Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. 

K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a blood sugar headache feel like?
Headaches from low blood sugar may feel dull or throbbing. Headaches from high blood sugar are typically also dull and throbbing, but one type may feel more severe, like stabbing, piercing, or shock-like pain.
Where are diabetic headaches located?
A headache that is caused by low blood sugar may feel like throbbing at the sides of the head, in the temples. One type of headache caused by high blood sugar is known as occipital neuralgia, and may feel like the scalp, upper neck, back of head, or behind the ears is inflamed or in stabbing, throbbing, or shock-like pain.
Why does diabetes cause headaches?
Changes to blood glucose levels can lead to pressure changes in blood vessels in the brain. This can lead to head pain.
Does type 2 diabetes cause headaches?
If blood glucose levels are imbalanced, either too high or too low, type 2 diabetes can cause headaches. If blood sugar levels are balanced, type 2 diabetes is unlikely to be the cause of headaches, although side effects of some diabetes treatment medications can include headaches.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.

K Health logo (used on certain page templates)