Can Sleep Apnea Cause Headaches? - Your Morning Head Pain Might Not Be a Migraine

It’s never easy dragging yourself out of bed in the morning, especially if you frequently wake up with a headache.

You may think that you’re suffering from a migraine and there’s very little you can do other than work through it and take medication to try and ease some of the pain. However, this morning head pain can often be associated with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

In fact, morning headaches are one of the most common symptoms of suffering from sleep apnea. Moreover, it’s estimated that up to 50% of people who wake up with headaches have sleep apnea without knowing it.

How can sleep apnea cause headaches?

How can sleep apnea cause headaches, man waking up with headache and reaching for pills

When you suffer from sleep apnea, you stop breathing periodically throughout the night. This usually happens because tissues in the throat partially or completely obstruct your airway.

As a result of this closure, air can become trapped in the lungs. This de-oxygenated air is packed with toxic carbon dioxide which can build up in the bloodstream and cause vessels in your brain to dilate.

The subsequent dilation results in a painful headache that can feel very similar to a normal migraine. It’s worth noting that this dilation also puts you at risk for serious health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

What’s the difference between a sleep apnea headache and a migraine?

If you wake up with head pain on a regular basis, it’s vitally important that you’re aware of the differences between sleep apnea headaches and true migraines.

With this information in mind, you’ll be in a much better position to receive the appropriate advice and treatment to feel better. Listed below are some of the key distinguishing differences between the two types of head pain.

  • Migraines are typically restricted to one side of the head, while sleep apnea headaches may affect both sides.
  • Sleep apnea-induced headaches commonly disappear within an hour of waking, whereas a migraine can persist for several hours, and even as long as a few days in some cases.
  • Sleep apnea headaches usually occur more frequently than migraines.
  • Migraines have a number of additional symptoms such as light sensitivity, visual impairment, and nausea.

What are the other symptoms of sleep apnea?

What are the other symptoms of sleep apnea, couple in bed with snoring man and woman covering her ears

The majority of symptoms occur while you’re asleep. Some of the most common include:

In addition to these symptoms, there are also few that you may experience during the day. These include:

  • Feeling very fatigued
  • Finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Lots of mood swings

It’s worth noting that it’s often difficult to tell if you have sleep apnea. It may be a good idea to ask someone to stay with you while you sleep to monitor your breathing and check for any symptoms.

How do you treat sleep apnea headaches?

The first thing you need to do is consult with your doctor or a healthcare professional. You can prepare for this appointment by taking a sleep quiz and talking with them about the results.

After consultation, your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist for further examination. This usually involves a sleep study, where sensors will collect your sleep data to determine whether or not you have sleep apnea. This sleep study can take place in either a specialist sleep lab or in your own home.

If the test results reveal that you have sleep apnea, treating the condition will often reduce your headaches. In terms of the different types of treatment, your sleep specialist can help determine which treatment option is best for you.

The most effective, gold standard treatment for most people suffering from sleep apnea is mask and device therapy. This involves wearing a CPAP machine while you sleep to gently provide you with air.

Using a CPAP device may feel a little strange at first, but it’s a method worth persisting with. Not only will it improve your breathing while you sleep, it’ll also improve the quality of your sleep and reduce the risk of health problems related to sleep apnea, such as high blood pressure.

Those suffering with mild to moderate forms of the condition may also benefit from oral appliance therapy. An oral appliance is a small, customized device that moves the jaw forward to prevent tissues in the throat from blocking your airway.

What to avoid

As is the case with the majority of health issues, it’s recommended to avoid smoking, as well as excessive alcohol. This is even more important just before bed.

It’s also essential to avoid taking any sleeping pills, unless recommended to do so by your doctor or healthcare professional. Sleeping pills can often make sleep apnea worse.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any other things you can do to help with sleep apnea?

If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, there are a couple of things you can do to help. These may well be enough if your condition is only mild.

Firstly, try to lose weight if you’re overweight. Needless to say, this will help keep your body in the best shape possible to fight against, and treat, the disorder.

Secondly, try to sleep on your side. To help with this, many people buy a special pillow or bed wedge to keep them on their side.

What are the main causes of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea has been linked to a number of causes. The most common include:

  • Smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Obesity
  • Getting older (children can still suffer from the disorder)
  • Family members with sleep apnea
  • Having a large neck
  • Having large tonsils or adenoids
  • Sleeping on your back