Morning Headaches? Sleep Apnea Could Be the Cause
March 06, 2023
If you wake up with a morning headache regularly, it could be a sign of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a type of sleep disorder that occurs when breathing starts and stops throughout the night. The resulting oxygen deprivation is the cause of morning headaches.
“Sleep apnea can directly cause what we call hypoxic headaches. You wake up with pressure in the head,” says University Hospitals physician assistant Cameron Blank, PA-C, who specializes in sleep medicine.
Hypoxic headaches usually don’t last long. Sometimes they disappear within an hour. Sleep apnea can also cause other types of headaches, but the link to hypoxic headaches is most typical.
“Hypoxic headaches may be a good indication that the patient might have sleep apnea,” Blank says. “Or in a patient who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, the headaches may indicate we need to further evaluate their treatment.”
Preventing Sleep Apnea
The best way to remedy apnea-related headaches is to make healthy lifestyle changes that prevent or treat sleep apnea. Some strategies include:
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Quit smoking.
- Don’t sleep on your back.
- Get regular exercise.
- Limit alcohol consumption and avoid alcohol in the hours before bedtime.
- Discuss any prescription drugs you’re taking with your doctor, including opioids which can raise the risk of sleep apnea.
Treatments for Sleep Apnea
A sleep specialist can evaluate your symptoms and order a sleep study, which uses multiple sensors to track breathing, muscle movement and other functions during sleep to determine if you have sleep apnea.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the primary treatment for apnea. CPAP delivers air pressure through a mask to keep the upper airway open. Customized oral devices (mouthpieces) may be recommended for some patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea.
Other treatments include upper airway stimulation, with a small device similar to a pacemaker that’s implanted on the right side of the chest. The device stimulates the nerves controlling the tongue and helps keep the airway open during sleep.
Surgery to open up the airway may be considered if other options aren’t effective at restoring normal breathing during sleep.
Other Types of Headaches
Sleep disruptions can leave a person fatigued and stressed during the day, which can trigger tension or migraine headaches. At the same time, chronic migraines elevate the risk of sleep apnea. Some research has shown that CPAP for sleep apnea reduces frequency of migraines.
“Anything that worsens sleep quality will tend to make migraines more frequent or cause tension headaches,” Blank says. “Fortunately, many options exist for treatment.”
University Hospitals offers a full range of treatment options to help improve your sleep and enhance your quality of life. Learn more.