Diabetic Headaches – Medical facts and simple solutions

Braden G. Barnett, MD

2021 Nov 12

10 min read

Diabetes is a health condition that afflicts one tenth of the population of the United States, or approximately 34.2 Million people, according to the CDC. In fact the CDC estimates that one in five people with diabetes, are not aware that they have diabetes. While diabetes can be managed with proper medication, a customized diet and lifestyle management, symptoms of diabetes can still show up. One of the most common symptoms is the diabetic headache, which frequents anyone whose condition has not been brought under control for numerous reasons.

But does this mean that someone who experiences headaches frequently is diabetic? Certainly not! There are a number of reasons why headaches can occur – we’ll talk about the differences in a bit. Meanwhile, we’re here to talk about what diabetic headaches are, what causes them and what you can do to avoid them and relieve the symptoms. 

What are diabetic headaches?

If you experience frequent headaches and other symptoms of diabetes, then you may be experiencing diabetic headaches. However, if you haven’t been diagnosed with diabetes, then there are numerous other reasons why a person experiences headaches. In case of such uncertainty, talk to your registered medical practitioner. Do the tests your physician suggests and then get started on treatment plans. Without proper medical diagnoses, it can be dangerous to try and treat a symptom on your own. 

Is diabetes to blame for your headache? If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, then yes, it is likely that your headaches are caused by high levels of sugar in the blood or by very low levels of sugar in your blood.  

So what does a diabetic headache feel like? It can feel like a dull, pulsing pain, a shooting pain, or a severe nerve racking pain. It can occur at the temples, across the forehead or behind the head. However, the headache is not directly linked to the level of sugar in the blood. These headaches have the tendency to build up slowly over time and can last well after the blood sugar levels have been brought within an acceptable range. This is probably why diagnosing a diabetic headache is often difficult, simply based on the symptoms. 

But can diabetes cause headaches and dizziness? If it really is a diabetic headache, then it’s quite possible that other diabetic symptoms accompany the headache. 

Uncontrolled diabetes results in hyperglycemia, a condition when blood sugar is more than 200mg/dL. It can cause symptoms such as: 

  • Blurry vision
  • Increased urination and dehydration
  • Hunger
  • Disorientation
  • Wounds that heal slower than normal

Often, over-control of diabetes by taking too much medication or more insulin than necessary can result in Hypoglycemia. Symptoms of Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar of less than 70mg/dL can also cause diabetic headaches along with:

  • Excessive tiredness
  • Sweating
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Shakiness and weakness
  • Hunger 

Differentiating between different types of headaches and migraines

There are many kinds of headaches. Let’s look at a few of the most common ones, so that we can detect the subtle differences between each type and their underlying circumstances. We can classify headaches under two broad categories: 

Primary: Primary headaches do not have any underlying cause. The headache does not have any specific cause, such as: Secondary: Secondary headaches are caused by some other underlying cause, such as:
Migraine Sinusitis
Tension Medications
Cluster Head Injury
Hypnic Other medical conditions including diabetes

What causes headaches in diabetics?

Diabetes is a condition wherein there is excess sugar in the blood stream, that’s not being utilized appropriately. There can be two reasons for this, i.e., there is no insulin being produced in the body (Type 1 diabetes) or the body is unable to use the insulin that it does produce (Type 2 diabetes).  

Types of diabetes: Can Type 2 Diabetes give you headaches?

Both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetics can experience headaches. The main reason is that the brain does not receive enough sugar/glucose in the blood, in order for the brain to function. The first side-effect is often (but not always) the headache. Mild at times and severe at other times.

High blood sugar levels especially above 200mg/dL can cause damage to blood vessels which carry the blood. Nerves can also be damaged by the high levels of glucose, resulting in many severe health complications.

Steering clear of Diabetic ketoacidosis

The body thus, as an emergency pathway, begins to burn stored fats, to produce energy. One of the by-products of using fat as an energy source includes ketones. A continued build-up of ketones in the blood can result in acidifying the body, leading to presence of high levels of ketones in the urine – a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis. This is an indication that diabetes is out of control. One of the side-effects of diabetic ketoacidosis is headaches. 

It is to be noted that diabetic ketoacidosis is a life-threatening condition. Symptoms, if any includes: headaches, nausea, vomiting, fruity-breath, stiff muscles, fatigue, rapid breathing etc. It the condition left untreated, it can lead to coma and even death. The good news however, is that it can be prevented!

Regular health checks, blood and urine tests can ensure that your diabetes is under control. So, anyone with diabetes must ensure that they have regular tests done. Without regular tests, diabetes can progress without any signs or symptoms, so it’s important to keep a close watch on what your sugar levels are.

If Diabetic ketoacidosis is allowed to progress, downtime at the hospital, may be inevitable. At this point fluids and electrolytes replacement therapy, or insulin may be administered in order to remove the build-up of acidic ketones and high sugar levels in the blood stream.

Now, on the flip side, you must have heard of the ketogenic diet where carbohydrates are reduced to a bare minimum and the fat intake in increased considerably. Such nutrition induced usage of fats is not an emergency pathway, and the body will not experience any harmful effects of burning these fats to produce energy. The outcome of nutritionally induced ketone production is quite safe and does not harm the body in any way.

How to prevent diabetic headaches?

Now that we know what causes diabetic headaches, it only natural to stock up on information that you can actually use. Such as steps you can take to prevent diabetic headaches, and safe Remedies you could try on your own to alleviate headaches when they do occur. 

Safe remedies to ease diabetic headaches:

Temporary solutions are to de-stress. Try some relaxation techniques like listening to your favorite soothing music or a fresh herbal tea or go for a walk with a friend. You can also try using aroma therapy or massaging your forehead with oils (Thyme, lavender, rosemary, peppermint, oils are good options).

Supplementing your diet with magnesium may help reduce the frequency of headaches. Again, it’s best to discuss taking any supplements with your nutritionist and physician before you start.

Some foods such as those containing caffeine, chocolate, aged cheese, aspartame, red wine, onions may trigger headaches. So, try and identify what ingredients trigger your headaches and avoid them as much as possible.

When safe home remedies don’t work, then the first task you have is to determine whether you have high blood sugar or low blood sugar levels. A simple self-test using a blood sugar testing device will help you determine this at home. If your blood sugar is normal and you experience headaches frequently or for prolonged periods of time, have your doctor give you a complete medical check to determine the cause of the headaches.

If your blood sugar is high, you can only be patient and ensure that you: 

  • Take your medication regularly 
  • Maintain a healthy body weight 
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a balanced and low sugar diet and 
  • Choose a healthy lifestyle

If your blood sugar is lower than 80 mg/dL, the American Diabetes Association recommends that you take 15g of glucose and check your blood sugar again after at least 15 minutes. Waking up with a headache and low blood sugar can mean that your physician needs to check your medication dosage.  

Seek Medical help to prevent diabetic headaches?

Prevention is always better than cure. So the first step to ensuring that you’re not troubled by diabetic headaches, is to make sure that your diabetes is being managed effectively. 

Nothing can replace the advice of your medical practitioner, so, follow medical advice to the tee. You will most likely be asked to do regular tests. On a monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or yearly basis depending on how well your diabetes has responded in the past and how well you are able to stick to your medication, diet, a good exercise regimen, and lifestyle changes. This will ensure that your blood sugar levels are constantly under check – meaning that the body will not suffer from excess blood sugar levels accompanied by the lack of usable energy. 

How do you get rid of a diabetic headache? Diabetic headache treatment must always be recommended by you medical practitioner. In our experience, diabetics are often be asked to take some over-the-counter medications for the pain. It should subside on its own. However, sometimes, a diabetic headache could last for days. In this case, do not take OTC medications for more than a day or two. Prolonged use of pain-killers can lead to liver and kidney damage, both of which are serious health conditions.

You can also keep track of your medication dosage, diet, exercise levels and lifestyle modifications. If no change in blood sugar is seen, i.e. diabetes is not brought under control, seek medical attention. It’s easier to treat diabetes at the early stages, rather than during the later stages.

There are many cases when you take good care of yourself and your medical reports show low blood sugar levels consistently. You may suspect that you don’t need as much insulin as before, or as much medication as before – however, keep in mind that you need to consult your medical physician first. Any change in dosage should only be made with the proper medical recommendation. Any sudden changes in diabetes medication, insulin intake or even sudden increase in exercise can set off adverse side-effects which could include headaches, amongst other consequences. 

You may even have been prescribed some medications such as Orlistat, Lorcaserin etc. that can also cause frequent headaches as a side effect. Although these medicines do not always produce headaches, it wouldn’t hurt to consult your physician about changing the drug so you can avoid having regular headaches.

Overcoming Diabetic Headaches

The course you take to overcome diabetic headaches will be unique to you. Just as every person is unique – has a unique personality, unique DNA and more, you will have to be relax and find what works best for you. In the long run, the best solution to treating diabetic headaches is to manage diet and lifestyle habits. Medication is a close second which can eventually be lowered by your physician, as your health improves. 

Written by

Braden G. Barnett, MD

Dr. Braden G. Barnett is an endocrinologist in Los Angeles, California and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Keck Medical Center of USC and USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. He received his medical degree from University of Southern California and has been in practice around 8 years. A skilled professional, Dr. Barnett holds certification from the American Board of Internal Medicine with a special focus on endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism. He is also a recipient of several awards and honors.

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