Sexual headaches: What are they, who gets them and are they dangerous?

Sexual headaches, also known as 'thunderclap' headaches, are sharp, sudden and intense, and could signify another underlying problem. canjoena

Lucinda Allen, a mother from the U.K., suffered frequent headaches, especially after reaching orgasm. The headaches were like “brain freeze — quite painful, but never lasts long,” she said to The Sun.

One day, however, when she was 26-weeks pregnant with her daughter, the brain freeze didn’t subside. On her way to the hospital, Allen lost her ability to speak, and scans revealed that she had had a brain hemorrhage and a major stroke.

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Although she delivered her baby safely via C-section shortly thereafter, she remains in a wheelchair and her left side is paralyzed.

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Allen’s story is definitely extreme, but Dr. Paul Cooper, a neurology professor at Western University and chief of neurology at London Health Sciences Centre, says a stroke is nevertheless a possibility for people who suffer from sexual or orgasmic headaches (which may also be known as thunderclap headaches).

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“We don’t know exactly what causes orgasmic headaches, but they seem to be related to the same stretching of blood vessels that’s associated with migraines,” he said to Global News. “What very likely caused this woman to suffer a stroke was the dissection of an artery. She might have had a headache coming on, and the rise in blood pressure and heart rate could have dissected an artery.”

Orgasmic headaches are fairly rare — Dr. Christine Lay, a neurologist and director of the Centre for Headaches at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, says that roughly one to three per cent of people suffer from them, although they also very likely go under reported.

The headaches actually fall into two categories: pre-orgasm and post-orgasm. The former is a better tolerated pain that starts in the neck, jaw and head, and builds slowly. The latter, however, is intense and sharp, and very in line with its “thunderclap” description.

They also tend to be more prevalent in men.

“It’s thought that they’re more common in men because of underlying biological vascular effects,” Lay said to Global News. “But sexual headaches can also be referred to as exertional headaches. And as a man is more often than not exerting himself more during a sexual encounter, a headache could be triggered.”

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Although orgasmic headaches are generally benign, Cooper says anyone who suffers from them should see a doctor and have a full work-up done to make sure they aren’t masking a larger health issue.

“You can have a brain hemorrhage during intercourse and if you feel like you’ve experienced a headache that comes on like a thunderclap, a physician will want to make sure you don’t have bleeding in your brain,” he says.

Patients can be prescribed anti-inflammatory medication to temper the headaches, although Lay says that they can also be mitigated by “taking your time to orgasm and using less exertional effort to get there.”

Cooper echoes her advice and points to elders as holding to the key to the solution.

“In general, there’s a tendency for headaches to diminish as you get older. I don’t think that’s related to the fact that older people have less sex, but maybe they’re not as vigorous.”

He also offers the following cold comfort: “It’s usually said the better the sex, the more likely you are to get a headache, so it won’t occur every time.”

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