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Why do I wake up with a headache?

03 August 2020 in Health

Written by Georgina Newman
Edited by Mike Martin
Reviewed by the Your.MD Medical team

When a headache develops during the day, it’s often possible to pinpoint the cause. It may be a tension headache from not drinking enough water or a migraine from exposure to bright or flickering lights.

However, when you wake up with a headache, what could that mean?

Morning headaches are fairly common, and usually the cause is nothing to worry about — but it's important to know when to seek medical attention.

Common causes of morning headaches

If you’ve woken up with a headache, there can be many reasons for it.

Disrupted sleep patterns

Not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much (for example, when lying in on a weekend or napping during the daytime) can give you a migraine headache.

Disrupted sleep patterns can also trigger a headache, for example if you’re a shift worker or you have jet lag.

It’s not clear why this happens, but it may be due to chemicals in the brain being altered as a result of your biological clock (circadian rhythms) or sleep-wake cycle being disrupted.

Morning headaches also tend to be more common in people with sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnoea and teeth grinding (bruxism).

Getting the right amount of sleep tends to result in fewer headaches.

Man lying in bed awake at night with insomnia

Insomnia

Insomnia is a disorder that makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. It’s closely linked with migraines as it can disrupt your sleep-wake pattern.

In fact, if you have chronic migraine — defined as having a migraine at least 15 times a month — you’re almost twice as likely to have insomnia.

If you have insomnia and think this may be causing your morning headaches, don’t take naps in the day and try to stick to a tight routine around bedtime and waking up time.

Find more tips on how to treat insomnia yourself.

Sleep apnoea

Do you snore loudly? Snoring can be a sign of sleep apnoea, a condition when you stop breathing temporarily while asleep.

When this happens, your brain will wake you up so you can take a breath again, and you may snore or snort as you do this.

This can occur multiple times during the night, which can leave you feeling tired in the morning. It may then leave you with a dull headache when you wake up.

If you think you may have this condition, ask a partner to check if you snore, and find out more about the symptoms of sleep apnoea.

Teeth grinding

Have you woken up with a dull headache, and your jaw feeling sore? If so, this could be due to teeth grinding during the night.

This is common, and a key symptom of teeth grinding is morning headaches.

Ask a partner if you grind your teeth during the night or record the sounds you make while sleeping. They can also check to see if any of the symptoms — such as a stiff jaw and shoulders — apply to you.

If you do grind your teeth, wearing a mouthguard at night may help. You shouls also address any underlying cause, like stress or anxiety.

Man waking up in the middle of the night and sitting up in bed

Types of morning headaches

There are different types of ‘morning headaches’ which are linked to sleep, such as tension, cluster and migraine headaches, so it’s likely that 1 of these is to blame.

Migraine

This type of headache is most common between 4am and 9am. In fact, half of migraines occur during this time.

It’s not clear why, but changes in your sleeping patterns or lack of sleep may trigger a migraine. It's also likely that any painkillers you usually take when you feel a migraine coming on won’t be in your system at that time in the morning as the effects will have worn off.

Migraines can be severe, typically causing a pounding pain on the side of your head. You may also feel sick and become more sensitive to noise and light.

They affect more women than men (1 in 5 women compared to 1 in 15 men).

Tension headache

This type of headache is sometimes known as the ‘everyday headache’.

It’s not clear why you may wake up with a tension headache, but this type of headache can have many causes. These include:

  • stress
  • not drinking enough fluids
  • irregular eating patterns
  • bad posture
  • bright lighting
  • lack of exercise.

It usually affects both sides of your head and the pain will feel pressurised. If you have a tension headache, you may also feel that your neck and shoulder muscles are tight.

It’s possible for tension headaches to become chronic, especially in people with depression. Each headache may last anywhere between a few hours up to several days.

Cluster headache

Though more rare than tension headaches or migraines, cluster headaches are most likely to come on during your sleep, meaning you may wake up in pain.

It’s not clear why you may wake with a cluster headache, but they’re linked to a part of the brain (hypothalamus) that’s involved in regulating your biological clock (circadian rhythms).

This type of headache is more common in men, and tends to cause intense pain behind the eye on 1 side of the head. Each headache may last for minutes or hours, and a cluster can last for weeks.

If you think you’ve got a cluster headache and haven’t had 1 before, see a doctor. They will be able to rule out other underlying conditions and may prescribe painkillers, as you may need a stronger dose to deal with a cluster headache.

Close-up of young woman sipping from a glass of water (Credit - Daria Shevtsova)

How to relieve or prevent a morning headache

Most headaches are nothing to worry about, and can be treated at home with painkillers. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor for guidance on whether to use these medications, and how to get and use them.

You may also be able to prevent them by following the advice below.

  1. Try to stay hydrated as dehydration can make headaches worse.
  2. Eat regular meals — not eating for long periods can cause a headache.
  3. Wear sunglasses to help reduce glare and brightness — bright light can bring on a migraine or make it worse.
  4. Rest and exercise — if your headache is caused by a build-up of tension, try some stretching exercises like yoga to help relieve it.
  5. Get good quality sleep — getting the right amount of sleep can lower your risk of getting further headaches.

You should also try to identify what may have caused your morning headache. Could it have been due to teeth grinding during the night? Or have you been especially stressed and tense?

Once you identify the cause, you can take steps to reduce your chance of another one occurring.

Key points:

  • most headaches are nothing to worry about, and can be treated at home with painkillers
  • not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much can give you a migraine headache
  • sleep apnoea or teeth grinding may be a cause
  • you should see a doctor if you wake up with a headache and it doesn’t go away, you feel sick, you’re more sensitive to light, your arms or legs feel weak and your headache gets worse despite taking painkillers
Article Sources

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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