Sleep Headaches – Causes of Head Pain During / After Sleeping

The term “sleep headaches” refer to headaches that occur after a person gets up from sleep. Sleep is a restorative function of the body. In some types of headaches (such as migraine headaches), sleep is considered to be a beneficial management tool. Therefore, headaches that appear after a person gets up from sleep are rather puzzling.

What are sleep headaches?

Sleep-related headaches can occur after waking up from either mid-day naps or after an overnight sleep. The type of headache can vary on a case-to-case basis. All types of headaches (including migraine headaches, cluster headaches, and tension-type headaches) can occur after waking up from sleep. These headaches can be caused by various factors.

An understanding of the causative factors of sleep-related headaches can help in the proper management of the condition with the least amount of medication. Since sleep-related headaches occur after waking up from sleep, one may attribute the head pain to sleep itself. However, sleep is a rejuvenating physiological mechanism that does not directly cause any pain.

Read more on constant headaches.

Amount of Sleep

The headaches that appear or worsen after sleep may be due to certain sleep abnormalities, activities one indulges in before going to sleep, the way one sleeps or multiple changes that are related to the circadian rhythm of the body. Having a regular sleeping schedule may help in avoiding sleep-related headaches. One must also get sufficient amount of daily sleep.

The amount of sleep required depends on the needs of the body, and varies among individuals. Sleeping too much or too little could result in headaches after waking up. Management of sleep-related headaches may be as simple as incorporating a few lifestyle and dietary changes. However, it is not always possible to eliminate sleep-related headaches. In such persistent cases, one may still be able to reduce the severity and frequency of sleep-related headaches.

Causes of Sleep Headaches

The following are some of the possible causes of headaches that occur after or during sleep.

Inappropriate sleeping posture

Sleeping in an inappropriate position could lead to muscle spasms or strain. This is commonly felt as a stiff neck upon waking up. Tension-type headaches can be caused by the muscle strain that occurs due to inappropriate sleeping postures. In addition to headaches, pre-existing neurological and musculoskeletal problems can also be aggravated by inappropriate sleeping positions.

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that is characterized by a collapse of the airways during sleep. This causes obstruction of the respiratory passages, which interrupts breathing during sleep. As a result of sleep apnea, a person awakens repeatedly throughout the night. However, a person suffering from sleep apnea may not be aware of the repeated awakenings during the night.

The affected individuals typically wake up tired and may have morning headaches. Sleep apnea can be classified into two types: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a collapse of the airways, whereas central sleep apnea is caused by a loss of control over the breathing process by the central nervous system. Sleep apnea is one of the major causes of an interrupted sleep cycle and morning fatigue.

Read more on sleep apnea.

Respiratory problems

Sleep can also be disturbed by a variety of respiratory problems, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary tuberculosis. Breathing difficulties and repeated coughing caused by these respiratory conditions can lead highly fragmented sleep followed by the appearance of morning headaches.

The level of oxygen in the blood drops significantly in some of these conditions. This may be the cause of morning headaches in respiratory problems. In some cases, cardiac problems may also lead to breathing problems.

Teeth grinding

Morning headaches could also be related to a condition known as bruxism. Individuals suffering from bruxism tend to grind their teeth and clench their jaws. The grinding of teeth in bruxism can occur during both waking hours as well as in sleep. The affected person may or may not be aware of the condition. The muscles of the jaw get strained by the prolonged jaw clenching and teeth grinding in bruxism. This could lead to headaches.

Natural painkillers during sleep

Our bodies have an internal biological clock that regulates various physiological processes over a period of 24 hours. This is known as the circadian rhythm. Different physiological processes in the body increase or decrease their activities according to the biological clock. The secretion of anti-inflammatory chemicals and natural painkillers in the body decreases in the early morning hours. This could lead to exacerbation of a pre-existing headache in the morning hours.

Changes in blood glucose level

Headaches can also occur as a result of low blood glucose level (medically referred to as hypoglycemia). This is commonly seen in diabetic patients. Poor management of diabetes can lead to hypoglycemia in the morning. Non-diabetics can also have headaches due to a drop in the blood glucose level. This may occur if a person goes to sleep without having dinner.

Treatment for Sleep-Related Headaches

The choice of a specific treatment for sleep-related headache depends on the nature of the underlying cause. Some cases require medical treatment, whereas others may benefit just from dietary and lifestyle changes. The choice of medical treatment for a sleep-related headache is best left to a medical professional. The following are some of the non-medical dietary and lifestyle changes that may help in managing sleep-related headaches:

Ensuring proper sleep posture

Sleeping on the back or the side on a good quality mattress can ensure a proper, restful sleep. Also, the type of pillow one uses is critical for maintaining the proper head and neck position through the night. Pillows that are ergonomically-designed are readily available in the market these days. One should test the pillows to ensure that they help in maintaining proper head, neck, and upper back posture without any undue stress.

Stress management

People suffering from stress and anxiety are more prone to have bruxism. Stress in these individuals can be managed through yoga or meditation before bedtime. Use of mouth guards during sleep may also help in bruxism.

Avoiding alcohol

Consumption of alcohol before bedtime should be avoided. Alcohol and other intoxicants can affect the quality of sleep, resulting in early morning headaches.

Do not skip meals

Eating a proper dinner in the evening can help sustain proper sleep and prevent hypoglycemia during the night. However, eating just before bed time should be avoided. Dinner should be consumed at least a couple of hours before going to sleep.

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