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Can Early Morning Headaches Be Treated?

Many people find themselves regularly waking up with a headache in the morning. You may think that you are the only one suffering from early morning headaches, but it is estimated that 1 in every 12 people actually experiences headaches after waking up. There are many causes of why some people experience a morning headache, and others don’t. Migraine, sleep apnea, lack of sleep, underlying medical disorders, alcohol use, and many other factors are responsible for morning headaches. Sometimes your habits may also be the cause of why you wake up with a headache. Read on to find out about the various causes of early morning headaches.

Why Do Some People Experience Early Morning Headaches?

If you find yourself waking up with a headache frequently in the morning, you are not alone. According to research carried out by Stanford University, it is estimated that 1 in every 13 people experience early morning headaches.(1) These headaches are known to affect women more than men and become more frequent in people between the ages of 45 to 64 years of age.(2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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Morning headaches can occur because of a wide variety of reasons.

Headaches that come on in the early morning could be brought on due to a change in your body’s physiology. During the early morning hours, it is possible that the body’s level of internal pain reduction might get decreased. At the same time, the body may start making more adrenalin at this time, which causes migraine attacks. It is usually seen that early morning headaches wake you up after 4 a.m., or they are present at the time you wake up. The most common forms of morning headaches include:(7)

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Headaches that are associated with sleep apnea also tend to occur early in the morning. In fact, one study found that one out of five people with sleep apnea reported experiencing early morning headaches.(8)

Migraine headaches are one of the most common forms of headache that happens most frequently in the early morning.(9) Migraine is known to be the third most prevalent condition in the world, and it is estimated that one out of four households in the US have someone who suffers from migraine.(10)

Another common cause of early morning headaches is sleep disturbances and disorders. Sleeping problems are known to usually cause migraine. New and emerging research has shown that disturbances in sleep can be a trigger for a migraine attack and also be a precursor to developing migraine disease for several years.(11) In fact, sleep disorders have been found to be related to more frequent and severe migraine episodes, with a chance of becoming chronic.

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Studies have also linked sleep disturbances like poor sleep quality and insomnia with getting more intense and frequent headaches. Around 50 percent of people who experience either migraine or tension headaches have insomnia.(12)

Types of Early Morning Headaches

There are many types of early morning headaches that occur. A morning headache can cause throbbing, dull, or sharp pain, and you may experience this headache for a short time, like an hour or less, or it can even last for a few days. According to the International Headache Society, there are around 150 types of headaches. Out of these, here are the ones that are known to occur mostly in the early morning:(13)

  • Tension headache
  • Migraine
  • Cluster headache
  • Paroxysmal hemicrania
  • Hypnic headache

Here are some of the common causes of early morning headaches.

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Causes of Early Morning Headaches

  1. Insomnia

    Insomnia can impact your sleeping patterns and also leads to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is one of the most common causes of early morning headaches, and it can also trigger migraine. Insomnia prevents you from getting a good night’s sleep in several ways. Insomnia can keep you up when you are trying to fall asleep, or make you get up again and again, or causes you to have a restless sleep. All these disturbances mean that you do not feel rested when you get up in the morning.(14, 15)

    There are many treatments for insomnia, and the first step is to discuss your sleep problems with your doctor. Your doctor may ask you to keep track of your sleeping patterns in order to diagnose the disorder.(16)

    Some common insomnia treatments may include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of therapy and medication.

    When you have your insomnia under control, you will experience better and more sleep and lesser headaches in the morning when you wake up.(17, 18)

  2. Sleep Apnea or Snoring

    Disturbed sleep in the night can often be caused by sleep apnea or snoring. This could also be a possible cause of early morning headaches. When it comes to snoring, though, it can either be a symptom of sleep apnea, or it can even be a condition on its own.

    Sleep apnea causes you to pause or stop breathing a couple of times during the night. Usually, headaches that are associated with sleep apnea just last for around half an hour. It is possible to treat sleep apnea with special medical devices such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.(19, 20)

  3. Anxiety or Depression

    Studies have found that migraine episodes and mood disorders tend to occur together. Having either one usually also indicates a higher risk of having the other condition. For example, the higher the frequency of migraine attacks, the more the likelihood that the person will also have mood disorders, and vice versa. The study found that people who suffered from frequent migraine were 2.5 times more likely also to be depressed or have a mood disorder as compared to those who did not have migraine. The participants with migraine were also two to five times more likely to have anxiety disorders.(21)

    It is important to note that mental health conditions can also cause insomnia, which further increases the risk of early morning headaches.

    Mental health conditions can be managed with medication, therapy, or a combination of treatments. Proper management of such conditions can help reduce the prevalence of early morning headaches.

    There can be several other causes of early morning headaches, such as certain medications that interfere with the sleep patterns, temporomandibular joint disorders, alcohol, and hangovers, grinding your teeth, strained muscles, especially in the neck, oversleeping, hypertension, musculoskeletal diseases, circadian rhythm disorders, and even a brain tumor.

Can Early Morning Headaches Be Treated?

Headaches that are caused by a sleep disorder like insomnia, sleep apnea, or bruxism will only disappear once the underlying condition is treated by a doctor. You may be prescribed certain medications, psychotherapy, or medical devices like a CPAP machine or a mouth guard.

In particular, many studies have shown that using a CPAP machine can be a very effective treatment.(22)

Additional treatments for early morning headaches will depend on the cause of your headaches. These may include:

  • Alcohol Use: Too much alcohol consumption can cause a morning headache or a hangover. If you feel that you need some help to manage your alcohol use, you should reach out to a doctor or organization to get the right help that you need. (23)
  • Mental Health Condition: If your early morning headaches are a result of anxiety or depression, you should visit a mental health professional. A therapist will be able to help you resolve the condition with therapy, medications, or sometimes a combination of both. This should help alleviate your morning headaches.
  • Strained Muscles: If you are having early morning headaches due to muscle strain on the neck, you can consider trying a new pillow or sleeping position. This may help reduce the frequency of your headaches.
  • Certain Medications: If your morning headache is being caused by certain medications, it can usually be resolved by discussing the same with your doctor. Even if you have a headache due to over-the-counter medicine, your doctor will help you resolve it and change your medication.
  • Oversleeping and Circadian Rhythm Disorders: Early morning headaches caused by these factors can typically be resolved by following a strict and consistent bedtime and wake-up schedule. You should also discuss with your doctor about how to establish a healthy sleeping routine. Having a comfortable and dark sleeping room can help.
  • Tumor or Other Medical Conditions: Headaches caused by any other medical condition or a tumor will be resolved by the treatment of the underlying condition. You should talk to your doctor and find out about the best possible treatment options for your health condition, even if it is a brain tumor.

Conclusion

Early morning headaches can be treated based on their underlying cause. Depending on the cause of the headache, you will be able to better manage the headaches. Changing over to a new pillow, better sleep management, having a consistent sleeping schedule, and making healthy lifestyle changes can help resolve your early morning headaches. Some headaches may need you to visit a doctor, especially if they are being caused by an underlying health condition. After determining the cause, the headaches should get resolved once the appropriate treatment begins.

References:

  1. Ohayon, M.M., 2004. Prevalence and risk factors of morning headaches in the general population. Archives of internal medicine, 164(1), pp.97-102.
  2. Ohayon, M.M., 2004. Prevalence and risk factors of morning headaches in the general population. Archives of internal medicine, 164(1), pp.97-102.
  3. Kayed, K. and Sjaastad, O., 1985. Nocturnal and early morning headaches. Annals of clinical research.
  4. Aldrich, M.S. and Chauncey, J.B., 1990. Are morning headaches part of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome?. Archives of Internal Medicine, 150(6), pp.1265-1267.
  5. Göder, R., Friege, L., Fritzer, G., Strenge, H., Aldenhoff, J.B. and Hinze-Selch, D., 2003. Morning headaches in patients with sleep disorders: a systematic polysomnographic study. Sleep Medicine, 4(5), pp.385-391.
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  9. Anon, 2022. Sleep disorders and headache. American Migraine Foundation. Available at: https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/sleep/ [Accessed August 26, 2022].
  10. Smitherman, T.A., Burch, R., Sheikh, H. and Loder, E., 2013. The Prevalence, Impact, and Treatment of Migraine and Severe Headaches in the U nited S tates: A Review of Statistics From National Surveillance Studies. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 53(3), pp.427-436.
  11. Rains, J.C., 2018. Sleep and migraine: assessment and treatment of comorbid sleep disorders. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 58(7), pp.1074-1091.
  12. Fernández-de-Las-Peñas, C., Fernández-Muñoz, J.J., Palacios-Ceña, M., Parás-Bravo, P., Cigarán-Méndez, M. and Navarro-Pardo, E., 2018. Sleep disturbances in tension-type headache and migraine. Therapeutic advances in neurological disorders, 11, p.1756285617745444.
  13. Anon, 2019. Classification. ICHD. Available at: https://ichd-3.org/classification-outline/ [Accessed August 26, 2022].
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