Why Your Morning Headache Signals Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. These lapses in breathing lead to oxygen deprivation and sleep fragmentation which can cause morning headaches for many patients.
At the Center for Dental Sleep Health, our Nashua, NH, sleep dentist, Dr. Stephen Ura, created this guide to explain how sleep apnea headaches can affect your health.
Causes of Sleep Apnea Headaches
Research has discovered that the lack of breathing in sleep apnea decreases oxygen saturation and increases carbon dioxide levels in the blood during sleep cycles. This chemical imbalance causes blood vessels in the head and neck to dilate and put pressure on nerves in the head, leading to pain.
Additionally, the repeated cycle of awakening during sleep interrupts the normal sleep cycle and prevents restful sleep. The oxygen deprivation and sleep fragmentation experienced by sleep apnea patients is a recipe for morning headaches.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea Headaches
Sleep apnea headaches most often occur in the morning upon waking and improve gradually over 30 minutes to several hours. The pain is often described as a dull ache located in the front of the head or more diffuse.
Other associated symptoms may include snoring, breathing pauses observed by a partner, excessive daytime sleepiness, and fatigue. However, morning headaches are sometimes the only symptom bringing a patient with undiagnosed sleep apnea into the doctor’s office.
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea Headaches
Certain risk factors make sleep apnea more likely to occur, including:
- Large neck circumference
- Structural abnormalities affecting the airway
- Being male
- Being over age 40
- Family history of sleep apnea
Patients with these risk factors should be evaluated for sleep apnea if complain of frequent morning headaches.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea Headaches
Morning headaches alone are not enough to diagnose sleep apnea. A sleep study is required to confirm the presence of sleep-disordered breathing. Polysomnography, involving an overnight stay in a sleep lab with monitoring, can objectively measure sleep phases and document breathing abnormalities and oxygen levels.
You should also keep a headache journal noting the timing and description of headaches to identify the pattern. A physical exam assessing the nasal/oral anatomy for risk factors like enlarged adenoids is also recommended.
Treating Sleep Apnea Headaches
The most effective treatment for sleep apnea headaches is treating the underlying sleep apnea, typically with CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) use during sleep. The pressurized air keeps the airway open and restores normal oxygenation.
For those who can’t tolerate CPAP, oral appliance therapy is another option. Custom-fit oral devices that pull the jaw forward to open the airway can also alleviate sleep apnea and related headaches.
Lifestyle modifications like smoking cessation, weight loss, and avoidance of alcohol close to bedtime also help reduce apnea severity. Acute headache pain can be managed with over-the-counter NSAIDs or prescription migraine medications like Triptans.
Frequently Asked Questions
How are sleep apnea headaches different from other types of headaches?
Sleep apnea headaches occur mostly in the morning upon waking and improve relatively quickly within hours. They are associated specifically with sleep disturbances versus migraines which can occur anytime and have other symptoms like nausea and light sensitivity.
Are sleep apnea headaches a sign of a more serious health problem?
While not directly life-threatening, the oxygen deprivation caused by sleep apnea can eventually lead to issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke if left untreated long-term. Morning headaches are a warning sign to get evaluated.
If I use CPAP or an oral appliance, will my headaches go away immediately?
It can take some time for CPAP or oral appliance therapy to fully resolve sleep apnea headaches, especially if you have a history of chronic migraines. But most patients experience significant headache improvement within weeks once sleep apnea is controlled.
What else can I do to prevent sleep apnea headaches?
Avoiding alcohol, sleeping on your side, and using humidification with CPAP can all help reduce headaches. Addressing nasal congestion and allergies that disrupt breathing during sleep is also recommended.
Get Tested for Sleep Apnea – End Morning Headaches
If you suffer from frequent headaches in the morning that improve after being awake for a few hours, sleep apnea may be the cause. Unaddressed sleep apnea can take a major toll on your health and quality of life. Talk to your Nashua, NH, sleep dentist at (603) 237-1124 about getting referred for a sleep study to diagnose the issue.
You can also request more information by filling out our online contact form, and a staff member will get back to you shortly. With proper treatment, you can finally address the root cause of your morning headaches and start waking up headache-free.