Diabetes, also known as diabetes mellitus, is a chronic condition that can cause everything from kidney disease to heart disease and it can also cause headaches in a variety of ways too. In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about how diabetes and headaches are connected as we will cover the different types of headaches that can be caused by high blood sugar and low blood sugar, as well as other ways diabetes can lead to headache pain. Please note that if you are experiencing frequent headaches, it’s important to consult with your doctor to determine if they might be related to your diabetes or whether something else may be causing them.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic disease that occurs when there is too much sugar, also called glucose, in your blood. There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes, can occur at any age but is most commonly diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults and happens when your pancreas stops making the hormone insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes and can also occur at any age but is most commonly diagnosed in adults over the age of 40 and happens when your body can not properly use the insulin it makes due to your cells developing insulin resistance. There is nothing you can do to prevent type 1 diabetes while type 2 diabetes is usually preventable by living a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise.
What are headaches and what causes them?
Headaches are a very common condition that can be caused by a variety of things, such as stress, lack of sleep, hunger, eye strain, or dehydration. There are different types of headaches with the most common being tension headaches and migraines. Tension headaches can feel like a dull ache or pressure around your forehead or the back of your head and neck. Migraines can cause more severe symptoms such as throbbing pain, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. The difference between the two is that migraines tend to be more debilitating and can last for days while tension headaches are shorter-lived and usually only last for several hours.
There are two different kinds of headaches and they are primary headaches and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are not caused by another health condition and can include migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by other conditions such as:
- Dehydration including hangovers
- Traumatic injuries
- Hypertension which is also called high blood pressure
- Problems with your eyes
The cause of the headache can help determine the best way to treat it. For example, if you have a tension headache, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin can help. If you have a migraine, you may need a prescription medication.
How does high blood sugar cause headaches?
If you have a high blood sugar level, also known as hyperglycemia, it can cause the common symptom of headaches because it can lead to dehydration which can then lead to tension headaches or migraines. When you have diabetes, your body is not able to properly process sugar which can cause your blood sugar levels to rise which creates excess glucose. Ketones, which are a byproduct of your body burning fat for energy, can also build up in your blood and cause headaches by causing stress on your body, including your brain. If either of these happens, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and check your blood sugar levels often to ensure your blood glucose levels come down to a healthy range. Headaches from high blood sugar usually happen over a period of several days if you are not managing your blood glucose levels.
Other diabetes symptoms of hyperglycemia include:
- Fruity-smelling breath
- Frequent urination
- Blurry vision
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
Headaches are an early warning sign of hyperglycemia, so it is important to pay attention to other symptoms as well. If you experience any of these, check your blood sugar level and contact your doctor if it is high. To manage your hyperglycemia and headaches, you can drink plenty of fluids, take any diabetes medication as prescribed, check your blood sugar levels often, and change your diet to include more healthy foods with less sugar and fewer carbs while exercising regularly. Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting smoking are the best ways to prevent it.
How does low blood sugar cause headaches?
Low blood sugar, also called hypoglycemia, is a medical condition that can result from a number of different factors including taking too much insulin or not eating enough. It can cause headaches because your body needs glucose for energy. The symptoms of hypoglycemia differ from hyperglycemia in the fact that hypoglycemia symptoms come about more suddenly. Other typical symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Blurred vision
- Sweating both during the daytime and while you sleep
If these additional symptoms occur, it is important to drink plenty of fluids and eat or drink something that will raise your blood sugar level such as simple carbohydrates that will break down quickly into glucose. Glucose tablets are another option and can raise your blood sugar in 15-20 minutes. You can also talk to your doctor about changing your insulin dose. When the symptoms of hypoglycemia become severe you need to seek medical attention as it can cause coma, seizures, and even death. To prevent hypoglycemia and the headaches that can come with it, you can eat small meals throughout the day and also check your blood sugar levels often.
Are there other ways diabetes can cause headaches?
Hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia are two of the most common ways that diabetes can cause headaches; however, there are a couple of other reasons they can happen because of diabetes too. These include:
Hypertension, also called high blood pressure, can also be caused by diabetes which can also create headaches if left untreated. Managing your high blood pressure is the best way to prevent this and you can do that by living a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet, regular exercise, limiting your alcohol intake, losing weight if you are obese, and not smoking. If left untreated, high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and poor blood flow which can lead to heart disease or heart attack.
Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing stops and starts while you sleep and it is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes. It can cause headaches because it can lead to tension headaches and migraines from the lack of oxygen getting to your brain and lack of sleep. If you have diabetes and think you might have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about getting a sleep study done.
If your headaches are caused by these other medical conditions that stem from diabetes, you can talk to your doctor about the best way to treat them. In some cases, you may need medication to manage your headache pain and in other cases, lifestyle changes may be all that is needed.
How do I know if my headaches are caused by diabetes?
If you have diabetes and experience headaches regularly, it is important to talk to your doctor about them. The headaches may be due to mismanagement of your blood sugar levels or they may have another underlying cause. The best way for you to prevent diabetes headaches is to manage your blood glucose levels. If the headaches persist with blood sugar management, you need to see your doctor so they can help you determine if your headaches are being caused by diabetes or another condition and can also help you develop a plan to treat them.
Diabetes can cause headaches in a few different ways but the most common ways are when your blood sugar levels are either too high or too low. Other reasons include medical conditions that can be caused by diabetes such as hypertension and sleep apnea. There are ways to manage and treat headaches caused by diabetes and the best way to prevent them is to keep your blood sugar levels in check by monitoring them to keep them at normal levels and living a healthy lifestyle with regular physical activity and healthy eating habits. If you are experiencing chronic headaches or have more questions, please talk to your doctor or healthcare provider so they can help you determine the cause and develop a treatment plan.
References and sources:
Fact Checked and Editorial Process
Diabetic.org is devoted to producing expert and accurate articles and information for our readers by hiring experts, journalists, medical professionals, and our growing Diabetic.org community. We encourage you to read more about our content, editing, and fact checking methods here. This was fact checked by Jacqueline Hensler and medically reviewed by Dr. Angel Rivera.
Owner, entrepreneur, and consumer health enthusiast.