Sexual Activity and Mysterious Headaches

Do you get mysterious headaches with sexual activity? May be not. But for one reader of my columns this has become a significant problem.

It is estimated that patients who have headache with sexual activity account for approximately one per cent of all headache patients. It is likely that the prevalence of this headache is underestimated, since patients often feel embarrassed to report intimate details about their sexual activities.

This condition has been given many names: benign coital headache (most of the time no serious underlying cause is found), masturbatory headache, orgasmic cephalagia (as it occurs usually at or near orgasm).

Apparently, headache related to sexual activity has been recognized since the time of Hippocrates. But the first systematic descriptions of this condition appeared in medical literature in 1974. Since then primary headache associated with sexual activity has become a well defined entity.

Coital headache is usually a recurrent, benign headache and is more common in men than in women. It can occur just before, during, or immediately after orgasm. The headaches are usually dull and throbbing and last from minutes to hours. Occasionally, some patients experience a sudden, explosive headache that occurs during orgasm.

Three types of sexual headaches are recognized.

The first, the dull type, is described as a dull ache in the head and neck that intensifies as sexual excitement increases, peaking at orgasm. This type of headache is little less common than type two.

Type two, also known as vascular or explosive coital headache, is a sudden, severe, explosive headache that occurs just before or at orgasm and persists for a few minutes to 48 hours. This is the most common type of coital headache. Patients find orgasmic headache frightening, distressing and disabling.

Type three is a postural headache, resembling that of low cerebro- spinal fluid pressure that develops after coitus. This type of headache is rare.

When patients first present with coital or orgasmic headache, it is mandatory to exclude serious underlying condition like ruptured aneurysm and bleeding in the brain. When a patient presents with a new type two coital headache of sudden onset, a CT scan should be performed, and even if this is negative, a lumbar puncture should be obtained, says one research paper.

Aneurysm without rupture can present as coital headache. To pick this condition it is necessary to do an angiography and MRI of the cerebral blood vessels. Other cause for coital headache is central nervous system vasculitis.

During the acute phase of pain, usual analgesics (ibuprofen, diclofenac, acetaminophen, ASA) can be tried but are considered of limited value to relieve the pain. In 25 per cent of the patients the pain may last more than two hours and up to 24 hours. Other medications which have been tried with some success are triptans, propranolol and indomethacin.

Fortunately, the prognosis is good and in the majority of patients where no underlying pathology is identified. With time the headaches disappear without any specific treatment.

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