Diabetes is a chronic condition in which individuals have difficulty naturally managing their blood sugar levels. Whether you have type 1, type 2, or gestational diabetes, it can be difficult to maintain healthy blood sugar levels without the help of certain tools. For instance, diet and exercise are helpful for maintaining blood sugar levels, and many people with diabetes also need to use medications like insulin to keep levels in check.
Having diabetes can present several symptoms and side effects, especially if blood sugar levels are abnormal. If you’re wondering if diabetes can cause headaches, this article is for you.
Prevalence of Diabetes
As of 2019, the American Diabetes Association reported that over 37 million Americans — or 11% of the population — were living with diabetes. This includes 28.7 million cases of diagnosed diabetes and the remaining undiagnosed. Furthermore, nearly one-third of Americans living with diabetes are over age 65. Each year, an estimated 1.4 million are diagnosed.
Common Diabetes Side Effects
Diabetes can affect everyone differently, but some generally common side effects include:
- Feeling more thirsty or hungry than usual
- Urinating more often
- Visual disturbances
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue or weakness
- Tingling, numbness, or pain in hands and feet that may indicate diabetic neuropathy
- Areas of darkened skin
- Slow-healing wounds
For more on this topic, see this post on things I wish I had known when I was diagnosed with diabetes.
Can Diabetes Cause Headaches?
Headaches could be one sign of diabetes, but not the only symptom you might experience. Headaches are a common side effect of having blood sugar levels either lower or higher than normal. So if abnormal blood sugar levels are something you experience often, this could certainly explain why you’re having headaches.
Can gestational diabetes cause headaches? Yes, headaches are not just possible symptoms of type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Any type of diabetes can result in headaches when blood sugar levels are out of a normal range.
Blood Sugar and Headaches
Headaches are an annoying part of life for everyone, but when you’re experiencing them more than usual and have diabetes, they can become even more of a day-to-day challenge.
Why does diabetes cause headaches? When your blood sugar is either too high or too low, getting a headache is a common physiological response. Headaches caused by an underlying issue like diabetes, and not a problem with the brain itself, are called secondary headaches. Let’s look at how high and low blood sugar can lead to headaches.
What does a diabetic headache feel like? It can feel like throbbing temples or having head pain of varying severity and may be accompanied by other symptoms depending on whether it’s caused by high or low blood sugar.
High blood sugar
Hyperglycemia generally occurs when someone who has diabetes doesn’t have enough insulin readily available to counteract the effects of carbohydrates they consumed. Normally, when blood sugar increases after eating, insulin helps reduce it and normalize levels. When blood sugar remains too high, it can cause damage to blood vessels and nerves. If the body can’t use the available blood sugar for energy, it turns to fat instead. This creates a waste product called ketones, and if left untreated, it can lead to a dangerous state called diabetic ketoacidosis.
Headaches can be slow to develop when blood sugar levels remain high, and symptoms like these generally don’t occur until numbers reach 200 mg/dl or above. In fact, hyperglycemia-induced headaches may not fully develop for several days.
If you think you have headaches, for this reason, you should also pay attention to whether you have other hyperglycemia symptoms such as:
- Excessive thirst
- Abnormal hunger
- Increased urination
- Dehydration or dry mouth
- Confusion, dizziness, blurred vision
- Slower than usual wound healing
Low blood sugar
On the other hand, low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can also cause diabetes headaches. When blood glucose levels are 70 mg/dl or lower, your risk of developing a diabetes headache increases. Your body needs glucose to function properly as this is its main form of energy and is particularly critical for the brain.
Without adequate glucose, headaches are common to develop, whether you have diabetes or not. In the case of low blood sugar, headaches generally have a quick onset. Diabetes headaches may be more likely to occur when you don’t eat enough to provide your body with glucose fuel. They may also come on if too much insulin is used to lower blood sugar.
Hypoglycemia also comes with other side effects, including:
- Fatigue or weakness
- Excessive sweating
- Sudden hunger
How to Prevent a Diabetes Headache
The best way to treat a diabetes headache is prevention through diet, exercise, and medication habits that promote normal blood sugar levels. However, if you do experience a headache with diabetes, it’s important to get your blood sugar back to normal. It’s a good practice to check your blood sugar before doing anything else. It’s vital to make sure it’s in fact outside of normal levels and to treat it appropriately.
If your headache is caused by hyperglycemia, water and exercise are two natural ways to reduce it. Exercise helps increase insulin sensitivity, which will, in turn, help lower glucose.
For headaches caused by low blood sugar, you can increase levels by eating a snack that provides 15 grams of carbohydrates and then rechecking blood sugar in 15 minutes. To help ease pain, you may also consider using an over-the-counter medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Always speak with your doctor for further support.
Can diabetes cause headaches? Yes, but you can treat and prevent them with proper blood sugar management. Did you know that a DigiVibe Complete Kit contains an affordable and compact device that helps eliminate the pain of finger pricks? To learn more about how DigiVibe can help you or a loved one, check out these patient and doctor reviews.
- “Statistics About Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association. Updated 4 Feb 2022. Available from: https://www.diabetes.org/about-us/statistics/about-diabetes
- “Diabetes Symptoms.” American Diabetes Association. Available from: https://www.diabetes.org/diabetes/type-2/symptoms
- Ramachandran A. Know the signs and symptoms of diabetes. Indian J Med Res. 2014;140(5):579-581. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25579136/
- “Hypoglycemia”. National Headache Foundation. Available from: https://headaches.org/hypoglycemia/