When you have a pounding headache, being unconscious might sound like a nice alternative. But what happens when sleep itself is the trigger for your aching head?
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If you’re wondering why you’re waking up with headaches, know that sleep problems are often part of the puzzle. “If you’re dealing with chronic headaches, or headaches that seem to appear as soon as you wake up, it could be a sleep disorder,” says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS, sleep medicine physician and Director of the Sleep Disorders Center.
First, it may be helpful to identify the type of pain or discomfort you’re feeling in your head in the mornings. Our head is a complicated part of our body, so it comes with a variety of … brain pains. And different sensations can indicate different issues.
Here’s the type of headaches you’re likely to experience in the morning:
The type of headache you’re experiencing in the mornings is the first step to identify. The next step is to try to determine the cause behind them.
Is there a rhyme or reason why you could be getting morning headaches? Or is this just some kind of cruel, pointless joke that the universe is playing on you? There are a number of causes that could be why your head feels like it’s about to explode as soon as you wake up.
Headaches and slumber troubles are linked in a variety of ways. Being sleep deprived can make you more likely to develop a tension headache during the day. It’s often a vicious cycle, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer explains. “Insomnia can cause tension headaches, which can make it harder to sleep, which can lead to more headaches.” (AHHH!)
Lack of shuteye can also turn up the volume on other types of headaches. “When people aren’t sleeping well, their pain is magnified,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer adds.
And even if you’re well-rested, sleep isn’t always an escape from chronic headaches. Both migraines and cluster headaches can come on while you’re snoozing. Of course, they can also strike when you’re wide awake, and the sun is shining.
Other headache syndromes are closely tied to sleep, too.
People with sleep apnea stop breathing off and on for short periods during the night. Snoring is the symptom most commonly associated with sleep apnea. But sleep apnea headaches are also surprisingly common, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
“We think more than half of the people with sleep apnea have headaches,” she adds. “The classic scenario is that a person wakes up with a headache each day, which goes away within four hours.”
People usually describe apnea-related headaches as pressing pain that occurs on both sides of the head. They differ from migraines, which often cause pulsing pain on one side or the other and are usually accompanied by nausea or other symptoms. And the good news: “Typically then, we treat the apnea, the headaches go away,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
Yes, there is a disorder called exploding head syndrome. No, it’s not what it sounds like. (Thank goodness!)
This sleep disorder causes a person to hear an imaginary crash or exploding sound in the hazy moments between wake and sleep. It’s often painless, but some people report a stab of pain in the head.
Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says exploding head syndrome isn’t well understood. “We believe it’s a phenomenon that happens as your wake systems shut down and your sleep systems come online. It’s similar to the way your muscles sometimes suddenly jerk as you transition from wake to sleep.”
When it comes to sleep and headaches, it’s all about balance. So even though we just went over how not sleeping enough can cause headaches, so can the opposite extreme. Sometimes, your body doesn’t like it when you sleep longer than you’re used to — it can disrupt your circadian rhythm, make you feel groggy and yes, contribute to headaches. A lot of time, this happens when you’re getting plenty of hours of sleep, but the quality of ZZZs you’re getting is lacking.
If you grind your teeth in your sleep, this may be another reason why you’re waking up with headaches. Teeth grinding while sleeping, or “sleep bruxism,” is when you unconsciously grind your teeth and clench your jaw while asleep. This creates an overall tension on your face and head, leading to a nasty headache or migraine the next morning.
This may be one of the first possible culprits to cross off the list. Depending on your sensitivity to alcohol, even one cocktail the night before can lead to a pounding headache the next day. Especially if you’re binge-drinking shortly before you go to bed, you’ll likely experience head pain the next morning. Plus, alcohol dehydrates your body a lot, and that lack of H20 can contribute to headaches as well (whether they happen during the day or night).
Sleep itself is pretty mysterious, so it’s no surprise that scientists have a lot to learn about the weird and wild ways our sleep systems can go awry. But the link between headaches and sleep problems is fairly straightforward — and mostly treatable.
“Many of my patients found that their headaches disappeared when we treated the insomnia or sleep apnea,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer notes. “If you have chronic headaches, it’s worth exploring whether a sleep disorder is an underlying trigger.”
Whether your healthcare provider recommends further sleep treatment or not, there are certain lifestyle choices you can also make to avoid waking up with a headache.
Even if you don’t suspect that there’s an underlying disorder behind your headaches, it’s still a good idea to see a doctor if you’re not feeling any relief — especially after trying lifestyle changes. A healthcare provider can provide some other treatment options, as well as try to rule out any other triggers like medication, diet or strained muscles.
If your doctor finds that your headaches may be linked to something like insomnia, sleep apnea or bruxism, you may need further treatment to get to the root cause. And if you’re getting morning headaches three or more times per week, you should make an appointment to help figure out next steps.