17 August 2017

Can sex cause a headache?

Sex is meant to be a pleasurable experience shared by two people. But what happens when sex causes a headache? Health24's headache expert Dr Elliot Shevel explains.

Headaches can be debilitating – a relentless pain in your head. Sometimes it’s a throb and sometimes it feels as though someone is hitting you on the head with a hammer...

According to Dr Elliot Shevel of The Headache Clinic, many people mistakenly believe the brain is the cause of a headache. But headaches are mostly caused by one of two things – either muscle tension in the neck and head or arterial pain caused by tiny arteries inside the scalp. 

But did you know sex can cause a headache? The first type, a pre-orgasmic headache, occurs due to muscle contraction in the head and neck during intercourse. People say it feels like a sudden blow on the head.

Up to 72 hours

The second type, called an orgasmic headache, occurs just before orgasm – it's more severe and is a kind of vascular headache, which means the arteries in the skull are affected. In some cases it develops due to the increase in blood pressure, causing the blood vessels to dilate. The pain usually develops around or behind the eyes. 

Sex headaches can be brief, lasting just a few minutes, or they can last up to 72 hours. Typically, sex headaches become worse with movement.

Dr Elliot Shevel, pull out quote

A sign of something more serious? 

People often assume a headache is an indication of something life-threatening like a brain tumour or impending stroke, but Dr Shevel says it’s not the case. 

“I treat thousands of patients every year and almost all of them present with pain from one or more of these structures [muscles or arteries]," says Dr Shevel.

“A neurologist runs diagnostic tests to rule out something serious like meningitis or a brain tumour. Once the neurologist gives the all clear, we test the structures outside the skull to determine whether it's muscular or arteries, no matter what type of headache you present with.”

Once the cause has been identified, Dr Shevel and his team can find the most suitable treatment. “When it comes to arteries, it’s really a minimally invasive procedure and nothing to worry about," Dr Shevel says.

“The challenge of diagnosing and treating a sex headache, is that we need to examine a patient during a headache!”

When a headache becomes chronic 

It’s normal to get a headache from time to time – perhaps stress from work caused muscle tension, you had a bad night’s rest or you indulged in too much wine the night before. But when you are constantly plagued by headaches, it could signal a problem. 

“A chronic headache is classified as such when it’s frequent,” says Dr Shevel. “If you're constantly taking medication to relieve your headaches or it’s affecting your work or relationship, you may have a chronic headache.”

If chronic headaches are disrupting your life, you need to seek help. And don’t be embarrassed if sex is the reason for your headaches – it's not uncommon. 

Image provided by iStock.


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules