Can Pre Workout Cause Headaches? (not what you think)

January 8, 2024 |

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For this article, I have gathered information about the potential of pre-workouts supplements causing headaches. And if it has any alarming consequences.

You might be experiencing pulsating, cluster, tension, or migraine headaches after intake of your pre-workout and now are wondering if there is a link between the two.

Caffeine is one of the staple ingredients in pre-workouts, and manufacturers also generously add it to the product. Artificial sugars are another suspect in custody. And you may include Nitric Oxide boosters in the culprit list of what leads to the cause headaches while on pre-workouts.

This ingredient list might have already given you a glimpse of why your head pounds after your daily pre-workout dose.

But there’s more to it.

So, I will get into why and how some definitive pre-workout ingredients may be triggering your headache and what you can do to prevent them.

So, keep reading to find out the details.

Can pre-workout supplements cause headaches?

Yes, certain pre-workout components mess with different body systems and trigger headaches.

For instance, caffeine, Nitric Oxide boosters, and artificial sugars are some ingredients in the pre-workouts that may make your head feel like it will explode.

So, let’s move over to the details of how this stuff is making your head hurt.


Caffeine added to pre-workouts meddles with the central nervous system to impart alertness, and it also affects other body functions to boost energy and endurance. But some reports show that caffeine may cause and aggravate headaches as well.

According to this 2017 review, caffeine may worsen primary headaches if you regularly consume it in the quantity of more than 200mg/day.

The three reasons you might be suffering from headaches after consuming your caffeinated pre-workout may be caffeine withdrawal symptoms, aggravation of a primary headache, and a headache due to analgesic over-use.

The caffeine withdrawal headache is included in group 8 of the International Classification of Headache Disorders.

Long-term caffeine consumption may cause you to become physically dependent on it, and the effect is similar to how addiction affects the body and leads to addiction withdrawal symptoms.

A brief snapshot into the mechanism would be that the excessive over-stimulation of the central nervous system downregulates the adenosine receptors, which play a role in controlling blood vessels’ vasodilation; thus, this constricts the blood flow to the brain.

When the caffeine intake is interrupted or when the effect of caffeine starts to subside, the adenosine receptors become hypersensitive to the normal stimulus in the body, which causes an abnormal increase in cerebral blood flow.

So, you feel a throbbing caffeine withdrawal headache as the brain adapts to the altered blood flow to it.

On the other hand, consuming more than 450mg of caffeine every day may cause metabolic changes in the body, which might trigger analgesic over-use headaches or aggravate a primary headache.

Moreover, caffeine is a diuretic, and excessive caffeine consumption may lead to dehydration if it is not paired with a large water intake, which may also trigger headaches.

This article by University Health News explains that dehydration may cause the brain to shrink due to which it pulls away from the skull, which activates the pain receptors in the brain.

Nitric Oxide Boosters

Pre-workouts contain Nitric Oxide boosters to aid your muscle pumping process and enhance the availability of oxygen and nutrients to them. But there is significant scientific evidence that hints that a nitric oxide boost may trigger your headache as well.

Let me explain how.

Nitric Oxide controls the blood flow to your brain and is also involved in pain processing in the central nervous system.

Studies have even investigated inhibiting nitric oxide synthase will relieve the different types of headaches.

You can understand the mechanism by which the nitric oxide boosters like arginine and citrulline in pre-workouts may trigger primary headaches (migraine, tension-type headache, cluster headache) from this review.

According to it, nitric oxide causes headaches by causing excessive dilation of the extracranial and intracranial blood vessels-think of the cranium as a geeky name for your’ skull’.

Moreover, increased production of Nitric Oxide sensitizes the pain pathways in the spinal cord, which enhances the nociceptive processing (processing of the stimulus arriving from the pain receptors in the body) in the central nervous system.

And the prolonged elevation of nitric oxide in the spinal cord may maintain this sensitization which may be why you get a headache after consuming NO boosters.

Artificial Sugars

Artificial sugars are added to pre-workouts to enhance their taste. Even though artificial sugars like sucralose are FDA approved, side effects are constantly reported, and their potential to trigger migraine is one of them.

In a case report, doctors documented the case of a 47-year-old who presented with a headache after consuming a soft drink.

The doctors later confirmed that consuming sucralose-containing drinks triggered his migraine.

Can pre-workout cause exertion headaches?

Yes, pre-workouts may cause exertion headaches.

The root of most exertion headaches is elevated blood pressure or dehydration, and the pre-workouts exacerbate both these causes.

Moreover, here is a user experience which is the written evidence of the potential of pre-workout to cause exertion headaches.

‘Arpeggiator13’ started this Reddit thread complaining of exertion headaches, and many of the repliers recommended that he cut down on caffeine, ensure proper hydration, and look out for pre-workouts.

One of the repliers, ‘BearJew2’, shared his experience of getting exertion headaches after consuming his pre-workout.

He wrote that he once took a strong pre-workout before going to the gym and suffered from severe exertion headaches only after he was five minutes into the workout. He noticed that the headache would get triggered as soon as his heart rate increased.

His doctor advised him to refrain from high-intensity exercise, which was not an option for him.

So, he discontinued the supplements and trained on ibuprofen for five weeks, and the headaches never came back.

Can pre-workout cause brain damage?

Yes, pre-workouts may cause brain damage.

According to the Brain Injury Association of America, stroke is one of the causes of brain damage. And there are multiple case reports which have documented hemorrhagic strokes caused due to pre-workout consumption.

This 2017 case report documents a case of a healthy young 25-year-old male who suffered from hemorrhagic stroke within one hour of consumption of the Animal Rage XL pre-workout supplement.

The researchers suspect the pre-workout ingredients like β-phenethylamine, caffeine, and creatine monophosphate to have increased the risk of stroke in the patients.

I would recommend you to look out for the presence of these ingredients in your supplement, especially if you’re caffeine-sensitive or have an underlying medical condition, since they may lead to stroke and, ultimately, brain damage.

How to get rid of pre-workout headaches?

With knowledge of what in pre-workouts is making your head pound with pain, dealing with the undesired situation will now be easier.

Below are a few tips on getting rid of the pre-workout headache.

Hydrate yourself

Creatine and caffeine are the two most common active ingredients in pre-workouts, and both may increase your risk of dehydration.

Since dehydration is one of the causes of headaches so, make sure you stay well hydrated and drink lots of water with your pre-workout drink.

Avoid vasodilators

Nitric Oxide boosters like arginine, citrulline, or nitrosigine may trigger headaches as they have a role in controlling blood flow and pain perception. So, check your pre-workout for their presence if you keep noticing the same pattern of post-pre-workout headaches.

And look for alternative ingredients like betaine and curcumin that provide the same muscle pumps and endurance.

Creatine supplements

This letter to the editor hypothesized that as recent research identified that migraine headaches cause creatine depletion in the brain, creatine loading by consuming about 20 grams of creatine per day may alleviate migraine occurrence and symptoms.

So, consuming pre-workouts with creatine may also reduce your risk of getting headaches.

Final Thoughts

All in all, yes, certain pre-workout supplement ingredients may cause headaches.

To cope with the situation, remember to drink lots of water with high caffeine pre-workouts, for starters.

Secondly, tally the list above with your pre-workout to trace out the ingredients that might be the culprits of your headaches. And the, discontinue their use immediately and look for alternative pre-workout options if you find potential triggers.

Moreover, since headaches may sometimes indicate a medical emergency like stroke, consult your doctor immediately if the condition persists or worsens over time.

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