Many people wake up in the morning with a headache. There are various reasons for this, and treatment will depend on the cause and the type of headache.
One rare type, called the hypnic headache, tends to wake people between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. The pain usually lasts 30–60 minutes, and then the person can go back to sleep.
Often, treating the underlying cause will help prevent an early morning headache.
In this article, learn about seven common causes of early morning headaches, how to manage them, and when to seek help.
People with sleep apnea often experience morning headaches.
With sleep apnea, a person’s breathing can pause or become shallow while they are asleep.
They may also:
- snore loudly
- make snorting or gasping sounds while sleeping
- wake frequently
- feel sleepy in the daytime
- experience mood changes
Many people with sleep apnea do not need treatment. If the symptoms are severe, however, a doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP).
The person will wear a mask that is attached to a pumping device while they sleep. The machine pumps air into the mask, and this helps keep the airways open.
A 2009 study found that 90% of people with sleep apnea stopped having morning headaches when they used nasal CPAP.
Sleep apnea can sometimes be a symptom of another condition, such as heart disease or high blood pressure. If a person sees a doctor about sleep apnea, the doctor may also test for these and other conditions.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, sleeping too much or too little can contribute to morning headaches.
Sleep problems and headaches have an interdependent relationship. Poor sleep can lead to morning headaches, while conditions such as migraine, hypnic headaches, and cluster headaches can cause sleep disturbances.
Experts recommend that adults get 7–9 hours of sleep each night.
Tips for better sleep
Here are some tips for improving sleep:
- Establish a regular sleep routine, which involves going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on days off.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol close to bedtime, as these can interrupt regular sleep.
- Avoid screen time and other activities that stimulate the brain before bedtime.
- Practice calming activities, such as meditation, before going to bed.
- Keep a record of activities that help promote sleep and those that make falling asleep harder.
- Create a dark, quiet, and comfortable space for sleeping.
- Take a relaxing bath to wind down before bedtime.
- Follow a regular exercise routine.
- Avoid large meals close to bedtime.
In 2004, scientists surveyed nearly 19,000 people to learn more about chronic morning headaches. They found a strong link between morning headaches and anxiety and depression.
Mood disorders and chronic headaches can affect a person’s quality of life and overall well-being. Seeking medical help for anxiety, depression, and headaches may help resolve this problem.
Treatment is available for people who have anxiety and depression, difficulty sleeping, and frequent early morning headaches.
A doctor may prescribe antidepressant medication.
Some other options include:
- seeing a sleep specialist
- attending cognitive behavior therapy sessions
- learning relaxation techniques
- getting regular exercise
The same 2004 study also identified a link between headaches and the use of alcohol and drugs.
People who consumed more than 6 servings of alcohol per day had more frequent early morning headaches than those who drank 1–2 servings of alcohol per day.
People who took certain drugs for depression, anxiety, or insomnia — such as Xanax, Valium, or Zyprexa — reported a 7.6% to 17.5% higher rate of early morning headaches.
Bruxism is a tension-related disorder that can cause a person to grind or clench their teeth, either in their sleep or while they are awake. They may not realize that they are doing it.
Sleep bruxism is a specific type of sleep-related movement disorder. People who grind their teeth in their sleep may also snore and have a higher risk of sleep apnea.
Alongside teeth grinding, there may also be:
- unexplained flattened, chipped, or fractured teeth
- tenderness or pain in the jaw or face
- fatigued jaw muscles
- difficulty opening and closing the jaw completely
- unexplained ear pain
- tooth sensitivity and pain
- unexplained damage to the inside of the cheek
- a dull headache coming from around the temple area
- sleep pattern disruption
- frequent early morning headaches
Treatment options for bruxism include:
- using a mouthguard at night
- seeking treatment for anxiety and stress
- establishing good sleeping habits
- limiting or avoiding the use of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs
If bruxism stems from a neurological condition, a doctor may offer bruxism treatment that is specific to the condition.
Migraine is a common cause of early morning headaches. If a person wakes up with a pulsating or throbbing headache and nausea or vomiting, this may indicate a migraine episode.
One 2008 study looked at the link between sleep problems and headaches in 1,800 young people, aged 12–19.
The group with migraine woke up more often during the night than those with tension-type headaches or no headache. Only 32% said that they felt well rested after sleeping.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, people with migraine are between two and eight times more likely to experience sleep problems than those without. Sleep problems also contribute to morning headaches.
Other health conditions may exert pressure on pain-sensitive nerve endings, resulting in a secondary headache.
Conditions that can trigger secondary headaches include:
Anyone who experiences a new, severe, persistent, or worsening headache should see a doctor. They may wish to rule out a serious condition.
Not everyone with early morning headaches will need to see a doctor, but it may be a good idea to do so if:
- two or more headaches occur in a week
- there are new, recurring headaches, particularly in those over age 50
- there is a sudden or severe headache accompanied by a stiff neck
- a headache occurs after a head injury
- there is a headache accompanied by fever, nausea, or vomiting that is not explained by another disorder
- there is a headache with confusion, weakness, double vision, or loss of consciousness
- a headache suddenly changes in pattern or severity
- there are chronic headaches in children
- there is a headache accompanying weakness or loss of sensation in any body part
- there is a headache with seizures or shortness of breath
- there are frequent headaches in someone with a history of HIV or cancer
Morning headaches are common, and there are several possible causes. These include sleep issues, anxiety, and migraine.
Anyone who experiences frequent or severe morning headaches should consider speaking to a doctor. Treating the underlying cause may help prevent the headaches.