You abstained from alcohol last night; you’re not under the weather, so what’s the cause of those piercing headaches plaguing you every other morning?
If you’re baffled by the persistent, throbbing headaches that greet you almost daily, and you’ve ruled out common causes like alcohol consumption or illness, it’s time to consider an often overlooked culprit – untreated sleep apnea. These relentless headaches may be a silent but urgent signal that your sleep is disrupted.
How Sleep Apnea Causes Headaches
If you’re reading this article, you likely have some knowledge of sleep apnea. We won’t delve into the specifics of the disorder here, but you can find more information about it and its impact on your health on our blog.
Experts have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of sleep apnea headaches, but several theories exist. The irregular breathing patterns induced by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) result in low oxygen levels in both your body and brain. This, in turn, leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your body, which contributes to these headaches. The poor sleep quality associated with sleep apnea can also be a morning headache trigger.
How Are Sleep Apnea Headaches Different from Other Headaches?
Sleep apnea headaches are unique in their characteristics, but it’s essential to distinguish them from other common headache types. Here’s a breakdown of various headaches and their differences
- Sleep Apnea headaches are recurring morning headaches that individuals with sleep apnea may experience at least 15 times per month. They are not associated with nighttime sleep disturbances. These headaches are distinguished by a persistent, non-throbbing ache that typically spans both sides of the head and usually subside after 30 minutes. Unlike other types of headaches, sleep apnea headaches do not bring about nausea or heightened sensitivity to light and sound.
Other common types of headaches include:
- Hypnic Headaches (Alarm Clock Headaches): Unlike sleep apnea headaches, hypnic headaches occur during sleep and typically awaken the individual. They are not related to obstructive sleep apnea. 
- Tension Headache: Often caused by stress, tension headaches involve mild to moderate pain and feel like a tight band around the forehead.
- Cluster Headache: Cluster headaches are severe headaches that occur in patterns, often on one side of the head, and are associated with sleep apnea symptoms.
- Migraine Headache: Intense headaches accompanied by light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, and nausea. Various triggers can induce migraines.
- Sinus Headache: As a result of sinus pressure, these headaches focus on the nose, cheeks, and forehead and are typically linked to sinus issues.
- Hormone Headache (Menstrual Migraine): These headaches may occur monthly, often before or during a woman’s menstrual period.
- Caffeine Headache: Caused by caffeine’s vasoconstrictive properties, these headaches can also be withdrawal symptoms if caffeine consumption is reduced. Interestingly, caffeine can both trigger and treat headaches.
How to Tell if You Have a Sleep Apnea Headache
Sleep apnea headaches are characterized by a pressing pain felt on both sides of the head. They can last up to 4 hours but aren’t accompanied by side effects like nausea or sensitivity to light and sound, which are more closely associated with migraines.
If you’ve ever had too much to drink and woke up with a hangover, you may be wondering how similar the two types of headaches are. While the two take place at the same time of day, that’s where most of their similarities end. While a hangover headache can be felt on both sides of the head like a sleep apnea headache, most of the pain from hangover headaches is felt in the forehead. Unlike the pressing pain you’d get from a sleep apnea headache, hangovers tend to include throbbing or pulsing headaches. Hangover headaches can last much longer and may take days to recover from fully. 
However, to be diagnosed with sleep apnea headaches, you must first be diagnosed with sleep apnea and have an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) of 5 or greater. This number indicates the average number of apneas and hypopneas that occur per hour as you sleep.
People with obstructive sleep apnea are three times more likely to experience morning headaches than those without the disorder, which have similar symptoms.
How to Get Rid of Sleep Apnea Headaches
If you’re consistently waking up with a morning headache, getting tested for sleep apnea is essential. Eighty percent of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea cases go undiagnosed, and the health risks associated with the sleep disorder can be deadly.
A sleep study can identify abnormal patterns in your sleep and detect any other issues that may be contributing to poor rest. Once a sleep study is complete, a diagnosis can be made for any sleep disorders, and the proper treatment can begin.
The best way to treat sleep apnea morning headaches is to treat the disorder itself. Since sleep apnea cannot be cured, appropriate sleep apnea treatment is the only way to get back to the good night’s sleep you need each night.
If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you’ve probably been prescribed CPAP therapy to treat it. CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, uses a continuous stream of pressurized air to gently open your airways, preventing the irregular breathing patterns caused by sleep apnea.
By extension, preventing those irregular breathing patterns also prevents any sleep apnea headaches.
Healthy lifestyle choices can also supplement your CPAP treatment and help eliminate your morning headache. A few positive changes you can make include:
- Practice regular moderate exercise. Even just increasing your activity level can help reduce your risk of developing sleep apnea.
- Avoid alcohol at least a few hours before bedtime. Consuming alcohol relaxes the muscles in your airways, which can contribute to obstructed airways and irregular breathing patterns.
- Practice good sleep hygiene. This isn’t the same as your nighttime hygiene routine, where you typically brush your teeth, wash your face, et cetera. Sleep hygiene includes everything you do before you sleep at night, good or bad. Examples of good sleep habits include following a consistent bedtime, avoiding device usage before bed, and practicing relaxation techniques to help you unwind for the night.
Is Poor Sleep Giving You a Major Headache?
Untreated sleep apnea can wreak havoc on your sleep and lead to a cascade of health problems, impacting your overall quality of life. Not everyone is a morning person, but it’s infinitely harder to seize the day if you wake up feeling like something is squeezing your head.
Sleep apnea headaches stand apart from many other types of headaches, underlining the urgency of seeking professional guidance if they persist. A comprehensive sleep study can provide crucial insights into your nightly sleep patterns, potentially distinguishing between ongoing nights of disrupted breathing and finally being able to breathe a sigh of relief.
If a morning headache is a consistent part of your wake-up routine, contact us at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today to schedule a consultation. We can help you return to a restful, stress-free slumber every night.
- “Hypnic Headaches: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment.” Sleep Foundation, 7 July 2023, www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/hypnic-headaches. Accessed 26 July 2023.
- “Hangover Headaches (Alcohol-Induced Headaches).” Migraine.Com, migraine.com/headache-types/hangover-headaches.