Are you one of those who wake up with a headache in the morning? Does it happen only once in a while or is it a regular occurrence?
Headache, medically called cephalalgia, is one of the most common forms of pain encountered in your daily life. Headache is a painful sensation in any part of your head, ranging from sharp to dull, that may occur with other symptoms. There are different types of headaches and each is triggered by various factors. One of the commonest forms of headache is a morning headache.
Morning headaches can affect anyone, from children to young adults and older people. A morning headache usually begins between 4 am and 9 am and often interrupts a sufferer's sleep. Research shows that 1 in 13 people experience a morning headache.
Most times, morning headaches go away on their own; however, if they are regular, then morning headaches can leave you irritated, angry, tired, or fatigued, not allowing you to get ahead with your day. Morning headaches are usually not indicative of a serious health condition and are easily treatable.
Read on to find out the causes of morning headaches, when they can become a problem, and preventive measures.
Causes of Morning Headaches
1. Insomnia. Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. Insomnia affects your sleep patterns and causes poor or disturbed sleep. This condition is a common cause of morning headaches. The lack of sleep caused by insomnia can cause migraine headaches as well. Migraine is a severe throbbing pulsating headache that incapacitates you and is associated with nausea or vomiting.
Reducing insomnia can help you sleep better and relieve morning headaches. Watch out for chronic insomnia (insomnia that lasts for more than 3 nights a week) which is another trigger for morning headaches.
2. Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is another sleeping disorder that leads to morning headaches. It is a condition in which you stop breathing suddenly, several times during your sleep at night. Sleep apnea results in disturbed sleep, becoming a source of your headache in the morning.
Usually, morning headaches due to sleep apnea do not last for more than 30 minutes. You can treat sleep apnea with certain medications and lifestyle changes.
3. Depression or anxiety. Chronic morning headaches are a result of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression can lead to insomnia, poor or disturbed sleep, resulting in morning headaches. Managing your stress is the first step towards reducing anxiety or depression and thus reducing your incidence of morning headaches.
4. Sleep Bruxism. Bruxism is also known as the act of grinding or clenching your teeth. When you grind your teeth in your sleep, it is known as sleep bruxism. It can cause you to have a dull headache when you wake up in the morning.
Bruxism is also associated with sleep apnea, and it may damage your teeth and cause jaw pain. Sometimes, jaw pain can also trigger headaches. Visit your dentist if you think bruxism is the cause of your morning headache.
5. Medication or alcohol abuse. Early morning headaches may be the result of medications (medicines taken for depression, anxiety, or insomnia) or alcohol. Medications can disturb your sleep patterns, resulting in morning headaches.
Drinking alcohol heavily can result in an early morning headache, and lead to a hangover (a severe headache or other after-effects caused by drinking an excess of alcohol). Alcohol has a direct effect on many neurotransmitters (your body’s chemical messengers) in your brain, which can trigger headaches or migraines. Excessive alcohol causes dehydration (loss of excess fluids from your body) and one of the most common symptoms of dehydration is a headache.
Your solution is simple. Reduce the amount of alcohol intake and check with your doctor if certain medications are causing disturbed sleep.
6. Withdrawal from caffeine. If you are someone who drinks several mugs of coffee throughout your day and if you happen to drink less on a particular day, then caffeine withdrawal can cause those morning headaches. If your body doesn’t receive enough caffeine (because it is already used to it), it can have some neurological side-effects (problems associated with your nervous system) that are similar to withdrawal from other drugs. And drinking coffee the first thing in the morning can cause a headache.
To combat caffeine-withdrawal morning headaches, try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon.
7. Strained neck muscles. Wrong or unhealthy sleeping postures can cause morning headaches. If your pillow or the mattress does not support your neck and head while sleeping, strained neck muscles can cause headaches when you wake up.
Find the right pillow (not too soft or too hard) to support your neck and spine position.
Other uncommon causes of morning headaches are circadian rhythm disorders, sleepwalking (medically known as somnambulism), allergens (pet fur, mould, bacteria, or virus) in your bedroom, tension headaches, or any sudden changes in your sleep schedule, such as oversleeping or sleep loss.
Circadian rhythm disorders are problems that occur when your sleep-wake cycle (your 24-hour daily sleep pattern which has 16 hours of wakefulness and 8 hours of nighttime sleep) is not properly aligned with your environment.
Tension headache is a common type of headache that causes mild to moderate pain, feeling like a tight band around your head.
Symptoms of Morning Headaches
Symptoms of morning headaches can be studied under two categories or types: ‘pain’ headaches and ‘pain-plus’ headaches. If you visit your doctor, the first question that he/she is most likely to ask you is: “Are you experiencing only headache pain or pain along with any other symptoms?”
Morning headaches can be associated with pain and no other symptom. Pain can be:
- Moderate pain in your neck.
- Pain on both sides or at the bottom of your head.
Muscle tension in your head, face, and neck.
Pain in your cheeks or jawbone owing to sinus headache (headache caused due to inflammation in your sinuses).
Nausea or vomiting may occur.
Morning headaches can be associated with other symptoms like:
Throbbing pain in your head
Numbness in your hands or feet or a tingling sensation
Swelling of the eyes
If you have the above symptoms along with your morning headache, it is best to see your doctor immediately. While morning headaches require no formal evaluation, you should consider visiting your doctor in the following cases.
When Can Morning Headaches Become a Problem
See your doctor if:
Your morning headache occurs more than two times a week.
You have recurring headaches and you are over 50 years of age.
You have had a recent head injury and are having morning headaches.
You have continuous vomiting with a morning headache.
You have a headache with confusion or loss of consciousness.
Your morning headache is causing extreme weakness.
Prevention of Morning Headaches
Lifestyle modifications are the key to preventing morning headaches. Important tips and tricks include:
Beat your daily stress to reduce the occurrence of migraine headaches, tension headaches, anxiety, and depression.
Stick to a regular bedtime schedule to prevent circadian rhythm disorders and to get your body adjusted to the same time of sleeping and waking up.
Cut down on your caffeine intake during the day. Replace your coffee mugs with almond milk, green tea, turmeric milk, or warm milk, especially before bedtime. All these drinks are known to prevent insomnia and help you sleep better and deeper.
Take a warm shower if you have repeated episodes of morning headaches. A warm body shower will increase blood circulation and make more oxygen available to your body, relieving stress and anxiety. This can help you sleep better and prevent morning headaches.
Avoid tight headgears like headbands, tying your hair in a tight ponytail, or sleeping eye masks. These can put extra pressure on your head and cause disturbed sleep and hence a headache in the morning.
Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises for 5 to 10 minutes before you sleep. Relaxation techniques will calm your mind, relieve stress, and improve the quality of your sleep.
Wear a mouthguard after consulting with your dentist to avoid grinding your teeth in your sleep.
Limit alcohol to prevent dehydration and to avoid triggering a morning headache. If you’re an occasional drinker and if you experience a hangover the next morning, it is best to watch your alcohol intake and limit it, if possible.
Avoid overuse of medications that can sometimes cause a headache after you wake up.
Stay in dim lights for at least 15 to 20 minutes before you sleep. Bright or flickering lights can trigger migraines that can cause morning headaches. Use anti-glare screens for your computer or phone to avoid straining your eyes and reducing the ill-effects of radiation from electronic devices.
If you occasionally wake up to a headache, you should not worry too much. Taking a closer look at your sleeping habits and your lifestyle will give you an idea of what preventive measures you have to take.
If morning headaches happen regularly, though, talk to your physician/neurologist for further treatment.
1. Headache, 2., 2021. Early Morning Awakening Headache - National Headache Foundation. [online] National Headache Foundation. Available at: <https://headaches.org/2007/10/25/early-morning-awakening-headache/> [Accessed 8 February 2021].
2. Korabelnikova, E.A., Danilov, A.B., Danilov, A.B. et al. Sleep Disorders and Headache: A Review of Correlation and Mutual Influence. Pain Ther 9, 411–425 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40122-020-00180-6
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