Sleep Disorders and Headaches

Do you wake in the morning with an aching head, or feel a migraine coming on after a long day at work? Headaches are frequent complaints for millions of people worldwide, and in some cases, they can signal sleep disorders.

  • Migraine headaches are more common in people with sleep disorders.
  • Morning headaches are one of the most prevalent symptoms of sleep apnea.
  • Tension-type headaches are a symptom of sleep bruxism, or nighttime teeth grinding.
  • People with frequent headaches (more than 7 per month) have an increased risk for insomnia.

Sleep deprivation can bring in a mild-to-moderate tension style headache. Headaches can also occur during sleep, specifically rapid-eye-movement or REM sleep. Chronic paroxysmal hemicrania, painful cluster headache attacks on one side of the face or around the eye, can begin during sleep.

Sleep disorders and headaches share common characteristics and may respond to similar therapies. According to German researchers, both sleep and headache involve the brain’s hypothalamus, which may explain the link between insomnia and headache. Researchers from the Nevada Headache Institute are exploring headache treatments involving orexin antagonists, also used to treat insomnia.

Do You Wake Up With a Headache?

If you frequently wake with a morning headache, consider scheduling an evaluation for sleep apnea. Your doctor may use an overnight sleep study to determine whether sleep apnea is causing your headaches. The vast majority of headaches caused by sleep apnea resolve with treatment: In one study, 90 percent of morning headache sufferers found relief with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.

An overnight sleep study can also help to determine whether sleep bruxism is causing head or jaw pain.

If daytime fatigue causes anxiety or tension-style headaches, try improving sleep hygiene by establishing a consistent sleep schedule, reducing caffeine and alcohol, and reducing nighttime screen exposure.

Additional Resources