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Headaches are the worst. For the most part, we know why we get headaches and can control the triggers. For example, drinking too much alcohol or getting too little sleep can both result in head pain upon waking. So what in the world is causing you to wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning with a headache? Sleep is supposed to be when our bodies and brains rest and recharge, so waking with a headache for no apparent reason can be highly frustrating.
Before we get into what causes headaches at night while sleeping, let’s look at three common types of head pain that occur at night or right when you wake up. Examining the head pain, its location, severity, and other associated symptoms can help determine the type of headache and which treatments can help.
Waking up with headaches in the morning is not fun. Headaches in the morning can range from a dull, throbbing ache to a sharp, stabbing pain or tightening sensation in the head. From migraines to tension, morning headaches encompass a variety of types and occur upon waking or shortly after.
Hypnic headaches, sometimes called “alarm clock” headaches, are rare, affecting fewer than 1% of people1. They occur while sleeping, distinguishing them from migraines or cluster headaches that can manifest anytime during the day or night. Like the nightmare they are, only hypnic headaches are bold enough to only appear at night.
Common symptoms associated with hypnic headaches include dull or throbbing pain affecting one or both sides of the head, waking up in the middle of the night due to a headache multiple times a month, nausea, sensitivity to light or sounds, or runny eyes or nose.
Cluster headaches are characterized by intense throbbing pain in, around, or behind an eye, and they can last from 20 minutes to three hours. These headaches can also cause the eyelid to droop, redness or tearing, or stuffiness of the nostril on the side of the pain. Cluster headaches can appear at any time, even during sleep. If so, an attack typically occurs within an hour of falling asleep, and the pain is severe.
All three of these headaches can occur while sleeping and undoubtedly hamper your sleep quality. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or simply asking yourself, “Why do I get headaches when I wake up?” – there are likely several reasons to consider, like the following five sleep headache culprits.
Studies have shown that sleep disturbances and headache disorders share common brain structures and pathogenic mechanisms, causing tension-type headaches, migraines, and sleep disturbances to often occur together – for example, 50% of individuals with tension headaches or migraines have insomnia.2
Insomnia – characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, early morning awakenings, and non-refreshing sleep – is the most common sleep problem associated with overnight headaches. Lack of restful sleep due to insomnia can cause daytime fatigue, poor attention and concentration, loss of motivation – and headaches.
Researchers3 have found that a lack of sleep increases the production of proteins responsible for chronic pain by reducing the body’s threshold for experiencing pain, which can spark intense migraine headaches. An insomnia-induced morning headache feels sore, strained, and slightly heavy. It is a sign of weariness and pressure from inefficient time to recharge.
Did you know that oversleeping can also cause headaches? We covered this topic recently and explained how “sleeping too much” headaches can occur.
Sleep apnea happens when you stop breathing for brief periods during the night. Naturally, our bodies do not respond well to suffocation of any kind, and it can leave you with a pounding headache in the morning. Sleep apnea-related headaches usually manifest a pressing pain on both sides of the head rather than the pulsing pain commonly associated with migraine or hypnic headaches.
Sleep apnea is treatable. Most healthcare providers will recommend a sleep study to diagnose the condition properly.
Sleep headaches can stem from emotional reasons, such as stress in the form of worry and tiredness – which can both disrupt sleep and trigger headaches. For example, tension headaches can occur when you endure a stressful day without giving your body a chance to rest and recover. If you think emotional responses are sabotaging your sleep quality, try exercise or meditation to help manage stress levels.
Unfortunately, we can be our own worst enemies. If you are wondering what causes morning headaches, a closer look at your habits during the day and before bed may be just what the doctor ordered. For example, we recently discussed revenge sleep procrastination, a psychological phenomenon where people stay up later than desired to gain some control over the night because they perceive themselves (perhaps subconsciously) to lack influence over the day’s events.
How about the way you sleep – can sleeping wrong cause headaches in the morning? The short answer is yes; certain sleep positions can put unnecessary pressure on your neck and shoulders leading to tension headaches. If you suspect this to be the cause, try different sleep positions, a new pillow, or a different mattress for more or less support.
Despite increasing research into the mysteries of sleep and sleep-related disorders, there are still some phenomena science can’t really explain, like hypnic headaches and exploding head syndrome. We covered hypnic headaches earlier and established how rare they are. Another rare and mysterious sleep inhibitor is exploding head syndrome (yes, you read that correctly).
This parasomnia (i.e., an undesired event that happens with sleep) occurs when a thunderous noise wakes you from sleep. People usually describe this noise as sounding like a loud bang, a clash of cymbals, or an explosion. Sufferers have also described light flashes or muscle twitches accompanying the noise. Although exploding head syndrome is distressing, it’s usually painless. However, some report an accompanying sudden stab of pain in the head.
Overall, sleep headaches are common and triggered by many emotional, physical, environmental, and mysterious factors. Science just doesn’t have all of the answers – yet. However, if you are seeking ways to relieve headaches caused by sleep, we recommend beginning with good sleep hygiene.
Our website also has a wealth of information and resources about sleep and how to conquer it. However, if you take the proper steps to set yourself up for a restful night’s sleep and are still waking with headaches, it’s time to turn to your healthcare provider for additional help.