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Why Do I Wake Up With a Headache?

If you feel a sharp pain in your foot while walking, your first reaction should be—did I just step on something? If you feel sharp pain in your head after waking up, it makes sense to assess the last thing you did—sleep. And that’s the right idea.

Among patients at specialty headache clinics, more than half also have sleeping disorders, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Sleep and brain health are dance partners, and they’re dancing a tango.

Waking up with a headache is usually caused by poor sleep. Insomnia, snoring and/or sleep apnea, not enough sleep, too much sleep, anxiety and stress, waking up during the night—all of these sleep fails can mean you start your day in pain.

Waking up with a headache is usually caused by poor sleep

Body chemistry plays a role, too. In the early morning, your body produces fewer natural painkillers, like endorphins, than it does at other times of the day. So when you wake up, your body isn’t as prepared to wipe out pain.

Your morning headache is a warning from your body. Hey! Improve your sleep quality pronto!

Migraines and Sleep

Migraine sufferers tend to have problems getting to and staying asleep. Folks with migraines suffer from many different types of sleep disturbances, including body pain and nightmares that cause them to wake up prematurely.

It’s a vicious cycle. Sleep disturbance can trigger migraines, yet sleep is often the only thing that helps make a migraine go away. In one study, 85% of migraine sufferers said that they sleep or rest because of headaches.

man waking up with headache

The best advice for migraine sufferers suffering from morning headaches? Get more sleep. The study cited above found that folks who slept 6 hours or fewer per night had the most headaches and the most painful ones.

Tension Headaches and Sleep

Tension headaches feel like a tight band is squeezing on your skull and are often accompanied by shoulder and neck pain. These headaches are thought to be stress-related and can also be a withdrawal symptom for people quitting alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine. Depression sufferers also frequently report suffering from tension headaches.

woman waking up with headache

Stress, substance withdrawal, and depression can also damage your sleep quality. It may be that these underlying symptoms are hurting your sleep and your head.

Snoring / Sleep Apnea and Morning Headaches

Snoring is a nuisance for anyone in the same room as you. It can also be a sign of a life-threatening syndrome, sleep apnea. Folks with sleep apnea experience blockage in their airways while they sleep, causing them to gasp for breath and wake up. Sometimes this blockage also causes snoring but not always.

There is a clear link between snoring, sleep apnea and morning headaches. In one study of habitual snorers, 23.5% reported morning headaches, and 69% had obstructive sleep apnea.

Brain Tumors and Morning Headaches

Brain tumors are very, very rare—diagnosed in 8 out of every 100,000 Americans every year, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. For around 20% of brain tumor patients, a morning headache was the first symptom they experienced. The pressure on the brain from lying down for so long can exacerbate the pain of the tumor.

Usually the pain from these headaches is steady, not throbbing. Often the headaches are also accompanied by nausea.

How to Control Morning Headaches

Since most morning headaches are a sign of poor sleep, improving your sleep routine is the best thing to try.

tips for sleeping better

Some simple steps you can take to improve your sleep:

Schedule Sleep: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night. The new Bedtime app on the iPhone can help. Aim for 8 hours of sleep.

Exercise: Tiring your body out is a good way to enhance your sleep quality. Avoid exercise right before bed, however.

Meditate: Mindfulness practices like prayer and yoga help us control our thoughts and relax our minds.

Dampen Noises: Unexpected noise can disrupt your sleep patterns, though you may not realize it’s happening. Earplugs may help you stay in slumberland.

Lessen Light: Artificial light tricks the body into thinking it’s daytime. Staring at screens before bed can disrupt sleep. So can lights from the street seeping into your bedroom.

Improve Your Bedding: Any pain or discomfort after sleep could be the fault of your mattress or pillows. If the simple tips above don’t help, new sleeping equipment might.

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