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Why Am I Waking Up With a Headache?

There’s not much worse than trying to face the day after waking up with a splitting headache. Or being awakened in the early morning hours by headache pain and then not being able to fall asleep again. Waking up with a headache and other aches and pains is often related to sleeping poorly. A morning headache might actually be a helpful reminder from your body that you need to improve your sleep quality. Gee, thanks, body.

8 Common Causes for Waking Up with a Headache

  • Tension
  • Depression
  • Hangover
  • Sleep Apnea
  • TMJ or Tooth Grinding
  • A Bad Pillow or Mattress
  • Dehydration
  • Serious Health Conditions

If you are periodically – or even consistently – waking up with headaches, it’s important to talk to your doctor. You can also look at how the quality of your sleeping might be causing them. The relationship between headaches and sleep problems is complicated and can get really confusing. They may be a symptom of a bad night’s sleep or they may be the reason you’re sleeping poorly. It’s often hard to say for sure – and it can be a vicious cycle.

Waking up with a headache is usually caused by poor sleep

According to the American Migraine Foundation, more than half of migraine sufferers at specialty headache clinics also suffer from sleep problems or diagnosed sleep disorders. And, ironically, while migraines make it almost impossible to sleep, sleep is often the only thing that makes a migraine go away.

You may be able to eliminate morning headaches simply by changing your pillow or your regular sleep habits. Or, you may need to work with your doctor to treat an underlying medical condition. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the ways your sleeping behavior and other underlying health conditions may lead to that pounding headache in the morning.

8 Common Causes for Waking Up with a Headache

From your bedding to your exercise habits, there are several things you can change to try to cut back on morning headaches and get a better night’s sleep. Morning headaches can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Talk to your doctor if morning headaches are a common occurrence.

Tension

It’s not uncommon for people who suffer from regular tension headaches to wake up in the early morning hours with a headache – usually sometime after 4 a.m. In fact, those who regularly get tension headaches or suffer from migraines are probably the most likely to wake up with a headache in the morning. To make matters worse, in the early morning hours, the body produces less of its natural painkillers – endorphins and enkephalins – than at any other time during the day.

This also may explain why morning headaches are often so much more painful than headaches that occur at other times of the day. During the early morning hours, our bodies also produce more adrenaline, which affects blood flow and blood pressure, and can constrict blood vessels – all of which can contribute to an early morning headache.

Tension headaches often feel like someone is squeezing a band tightly around your head at the temples and they may also cause shoulder pain and neck pain. Sometimes, these types of headaches are stress related or caused by anxiety, and they’re also associated with alcohol and caffeine withdrawal.

Depression

Some studies show that people suffering from depression often also face insomnia or have other sleep issues, which can lead to early morning headaches. Effectively managing depression through medications and therapy can help improve REM sleep and reduce the likelihood of insomnia and morning headaches. Most headache sufferers who also battle depression deal with tension headaches as well.

Hangover

Most of us have over-indulged at some point. That extra cocktail or two sometimes can be a risk factor for a morning headache. Throughout the night, as your blood alcohol level drops back to normal, you can easily become dehydrated, which can lead to headaches. Some headaches are caused by expanded blood vessels, which are also a result of that dropping blood alcohol level. Alcohol consumption can lead to insomnia, which can also cause you to wake up with a headache. There are even some compounds in alcohol that can interact negatively with neurotransmitters in your brain, causing headaches. If you notice that you wake up with a headache even after one drink, you might want to pass on that cocktail or glass of wine.

man waking up with headache

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a health condition that causes your throat muscles to partially collapse while you sleep, interrupting your breathing. One of the symptoms of sleep apnea is a morning headache, caused by a lack of oxygen and increased pressure that can develop in your head. Usually, headaches associated with sleep apnea last no longer than 30 minutes and respond well to pain medication. Your doctor can help you treat sleep apnea and snoring – usually by wearing a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP). This device can improve your sleep and lower the chances of developing a throbbing head in the morning.

Excessive snoring is an indicator of sleep apnea. Snoring is not only annoying to your sleep partner, but it can also be an indicator that you need medical treatment for a serious sleep issue. In fact, one study of habitual snorers showed that roughly 24% of respondents had morning headaches, and 69% reported obstructive sleep apnea along with their snoring.

TMJ or Tooth Grinding

Your temporomandibular joint has a big job to do – it connects your jaw to your skull. If you stress that joint by clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth together while you sleep, you can bring about a morning headache. This kind of headache is usually dull and centered around your temples – and is a direct result of the hundreds of pounds of pressure you’re putting on that joint. Your dentist can fit you with a night guard to wear while you sleep that will keep you from putting so much pressure and stress on your jaw muscles. You might find that some pre-sleep relaxation or deep breathing techniques help, too.

woman waking up with headache

A Bad Pillow or Mattress

Sometimes, morning headaches are caused by strained neck muscles. If your pillow or mattress isn’t supporting your neck in the right way, your unhealthy sleep posture can make your head throb. The best mattress and pillow should support your head and neck in a neutral position – similar to when you’re standing. If your pillow is too soft or too firm, it can fail to support your head and neck properly.

A good rule of thumb is that your pillow should fit the contours of your head, neck, shoulders, and back so that it relieves the tension and pressure that can lead to headaches. Sometimes, the top part of your head stays on the pillow as you sleep, but your neck isn’t really touching it at all – which leads to a completely unnatural position that strains muscles and leads to headaches.

You might need some trial and error to find a pillow with the right firmness, but it’s worth the effort. As a first step, why not try the Purple® Pillow – it features an elastic polymer molded into a smart-comfort grid that supports your neck’s natural curvature. In fact, it’s specifically designed for ideal head and neck support and may be your best pillow for neck pain and headaches. The Purple® Pillow is also highly breathable. It allows for plenty of airflow and doesn’t absorb heat, so it remains a neutral temperature throughout the night – you’ll be super comfortable and get overall better sleep.

Dehydration

Becoming dehydrated is one of the most common migraine triggers. If you don’t drink sufficient water throughout the day, you may be setting yourself up for a morning headache. After all, your body has been fasting for about six to eight hours while you were sleeping. A dehydration headache often feels similar to a tension headache, with the same sensation of a tightening band around your head.

To avoid a dehydration-triggered morning headache, make sure to drink enough water throughout the day. That means drinking enough water that you don’t feel thirsty and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, which also supply your body with water. If you live in an arid climate or are physically active, you may need to drink more than six to eight glasses of water per day. And don’t forget that alcohol, while liquid, can actually encourage dehydration since it’s a diuretic.

tips for sleeping better

Serious Health Conditions

You shouldn’t jump to a sinister conclusion if you wake up with a few morning headaches. It may be easy to assume the worst when your head is pounding, but very few morning headaches are actually caused by serious health issues. While most worries are related to brain tumors, roughly eight in 100,000 people are actually diagnosed with a brain tumor each year according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology – and most of those originate somewhere else in the body.

However, it’s wise to be cautious. If you notice other symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, blurred vision or vision loss, depression, nausea or vomiting, problems with speech, or seizures, you’d be wise to check with your doctor. Sometimes your morning headache may be completely unrelated to your sleep habits. Other health conditions, like high blood pressure and some musculoskeletal conditions, also can lead to morning headaches.

Be sure to talk to your doctor if your headaches are frequent and interfere with your quality of life. Once your doctor has diagnosed the root of your headaches, you can begin an effective treatment plan.

Waking Up with a Headache

Morning headaches are no joke – and they affect as many as one in 13 people. Many times, morning headaches can be traced back to inadequate sleep. Anything you can do to make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep can help you cut down your chances of waking up to a throbbing head. By some estimates, sleepers who get less than six hours of sleep per night are most likely to develop morning headaches.

It helps to have a good understanding of how to sleep better – like getting into a regular sleep schedule, exercising, drinking plenty of water, and upgrading your pillows or mattress. When you can develop healthy sleep habits, you’ll be taking a major step toward waking up revived and refreshed each morning.

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