Author: Mathieu Rees
Although there is anecdotal evidence that sexual activity could help to alleviate headaches in some people, there is very little scientific evidence to support the idea. Indeed, some evidence suggests that having sex may cause headaches in a small number of people, and may worsen existing headaches in some others.
This article describes whether sex can help with headaches and whether it depends on the type of headache a person experiences. We also investigate how sex may help with headaches and provide some alternative methods for headache relief.
Finally, we ask whether sex can cause headaches and whether a person should see a doctor for headaches that occur during or after sex.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that sex can help to alleviate headaches in some people. However, the scientific evidence for these claims is somewhat weak.
For example, an older 2006 study presents two separate case studies of men who reported that sex helped alleviate their cluster headaches. In one case, masturbation also had the same effect.
However, given the unreliability of self-reports and the small sample size, the study does not provide sufficient evidence that sex helps to alleviate headaches.
An older 2013 study suggests that sex may be more helpful for certain kinds of headaches than for others. Researchers sent a questionnaire to 1,000 people registered at a headache clinic, 800 of whom experienced migraine, while the other 200 experienced cluster headache.
Among the 304 people with migraine who responded to the questionnaire, 34% had sex during a migraine attack. Within this group, 60% reported that their migraine attack improved. Of those who experienced an improvement, 70% reported moderate to complete relief.
The study reports that 33% of responders who had sex experienced a worsening of their migraine symptoms.
These figures are different for the cluster headache group. Of the 96 people with cluster headaches who responded to the questionnaire, 31% had sex during a cluster headache attack. Within this group, 37% reported that their cluster headache attack improved.
Of those who experienced an improvement, 91% reported moderate to complete relief.
The study reports that 50% of responders who had sex experienced a worsening of their cluster headache symptoms.
The study authors concluded that sexual activity may lead to partial or complete headache relief in some individuals with migraine and in a few individuals with cluster headaches. However, it appears that sexual activity may worsen cluster headaches for the majority of people with this type of headache.
Ultimately, further research involving larger sample sizes and methods other than self-report is necessary to determine whether and to what extent sexual activity may improve different types of headaches.
It is possible that sex could improve headaches in some people. However, scientists remain uncertain as to how this process might work.
One suggestion is that sexual activity could activate certain patterns of activity in the brain, which may inhibit pain.
Another possibility is that sexual arousal and orgasm might reduce pain by triggering the release of endorphins within the brain. These are chemicals that help to alleviate pain and stress.
More research is necessary to determine the mechanism via which sex may help to alleviate headaches.
The evidence suggesting that sex may help to alleviate headaches remains poor. However, a 2021 review notes that there are multiple tried-and-tested treatments for headaches, including:
- taking over-the-counter painkillers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
- taking corticosteroids for migraine
- receiving high flow oxygen therapy for cluster headaches
It is worth remembering that many headaches get better over time.
A 2017 case report notes that headaches associated with sexual activity may affect between 1% and 1.6% of the general population.
Moreover, the 2013 study reports that sex could worsen migraine attacks in around 33% of people and worsen cluster headaches in around 50% of people.
There are two main types of sex-related headaches: pre-orgasmic and post-orgasmic. The former account for around 20% of sex-related headaches, with post-orgasmic headaches accounting for the remaining 80%
A 2021 review explains that headaches that occur during or after sex do not usually occur alongside any other symptoms.
As such, a person who experiences sex-related headaches alongside any other concerning symptoms should contact their doctor, as there may be an underlying issue that needs addressing.
A sex-related headache is not a serious condition in and of itself. However, the authors of the 2021 review stress the importance of differentiating sex-related headaches from more serious causes of headaches.
Some serious underlying medical conditions that may cause headaches include:
There is currently insufficient evidence to suggest that having sex can alleviate headaches. Indeed, some evidence suggests that sex can cause headaches in some people and may worsen headaches in others.
According to the available research, it seems that sex is most likely to alleviate headaches in people who experience migraine. It may be less effective in alleviating headaches in people who experience cluster headaches.
Anyone who routinely experiences a new headache or a worsening headache during or following sex or other physical activity should contact their doctor.
Those who experience a sudden and severe headache alongside other concerning symptoms should seek urgent medical attention.