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
- 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.
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 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:
- Blurry vision
- Feeling anxious or panicked
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Physical weakness or fatigue
- Racing heart
- 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
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
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Frequently Asked Questions
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.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Headache in diabetes—occipital neuropathy. (2003)
Migraine in adults with diabetes; is there an association? Results of a population-based study. (2018)
Plasma Glucose Levels Increase During Spontaneous Attacks of Migraine With and Without Aura. (2020).
Peppermint oil in the acute treatment of tension-type headache. (2016)