Headache / Migraine

Five common causes of early morning headache

Early morning headache is an everyday reality for many people upon awakening. There are several different types of headache, each associated with its own risk factors and causes.

Examples include migraine headaches, tension-type headaches (TTH), and medication-overuse headaches (MOH). According to the World Health Organization, headaches are the third highest cause of time lost to ill health in the world.

Headaches are common, but should people with frequent early morning headaches worry about the seriousness of the condition?

Read on to learn more about five common causes of early morning headaches. Find out what can be done to reduce the risks and when to call the doctor.

1. Sleep problems

Several sleep problems can lead to headaches in the morning.

Snoring and sleep apnea

woman with migraine headache in bed in the morning.
Sleep apnea, snoring, and disrupted sleep paterns may cause morning headaches.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, several factors can contribute to, or cause, frequent early morning headaches. In fact, something as simple as snoring can increase the risk of headaches.

Snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea, which is a condition where a person’s breathing may pause or become very shallow while they are asleep.

Although not all snoring is linked to sleeping disorders, sleep apnea has been associated with frequent morning headaches.

If a person suspects sleep apnea, there are several symptoms to watch for, including:

  • frequently waking in the middle of the night
  • daytime sleepiness
  • night sweats
  • daily snoring

Sleep deprivation

A recent study examined the connection between sleep problems and headaches. The study involved more than 1,800 adolescent participants.

Three groups were identified in the study: people with TTH, people with migraines, and people with no headaches.

The group with migraine headaches experienced the most frequent periods of nighttime awakening. Only 32 percent of the study participants with migraines reported feeling well rested after sleeping.

Experts recommend that adults get around 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. According to the American Migraine Foundation, sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 8.5 hours might increase the severity of a headache.

Tips for promoting healthful sleep habits

To improve sleep, people should aim to do the following:

  • Establish a regular nightly sleep pattern, going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time each morning.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which are all known to interrupt regular sleep.
  • Avoid activities that stimulate the brain before bedtime, such as watching television or browsing the Internet.
  • 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, comfortable space for sleeping.
  • Take a relaxing bath to wind down before bedtime.
  • Establish a regular exercise routine.

Frequent early morning headaches, regular snoring, and other signs of sleep apnea, should be reported to a doctor. The doctor may order overnight testing to do a sleep apnea evaluation.

In many cases, diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea may be all that is needed for headaches to go away.

It is important to note that sleep apnea has been associated with other, more serious disorders, including heart disease and high blood pressure. The doctor may test for these and other serious conditions as well.


2. Depression and anxiety

stressed and anxious woman at work, tired and rubbing her temples because of a headache.
Anxiety and depression may cause headaches or migraines, which may lead to further emotional distress.

Insomnia is a common symptom of depression and anxiety, both of which are significant risk factors for recurring early morning headaches.

A 2016 study set out to discover the connection between mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and the incidence of headaches.

In the study, researchers compiled data from approximately 9,000 adult participants in 10 different European countries.

A survey was given to screen participants for the prevalence of headache, depression, and anxiety.

The most prevalent type of headache associated with anxiety and depression in the study turned out to be probable medication overuse headache (pMOH). The second most frequent type of headache in the study was TTH, and migraine was the third most prevalent.

In the study, TTH was associated only with anxiety, not with depression.

When a person has a mood disorder combined with chronic headaches, it can quickly begin to have a negative effect on their quality of life and daily activities.

Treatment for anxiety or depression-induced sleep disorders

Diagnosis and treatment for symptoms of anxiety and depression are vital to maintaining mood and managing sleep disorders for those who have frequent early morning headaches.

Doctors may prescribe antidepressant medications. Many types of antidepressants help promote sound sleep, and some are commonly used to prevent migraines, such tricyclic antidepressants.

A doctor can suggest what type of medication is best to treat depression or anxiety for those people with chronic headaches. Sleep specialists or psychologists can offer intensive treatment, such as cognitive therapy, behavioral modification, or other techniques for relaxation training.

Some healthcare professionals may recommend nutrient supplements, such as pharmaceutical grade L-tryptophan, 5-HTP, or melatonin to promote sleep.

3. Alcohol and drugs

A 2004 study looked at the link between headaches and the use of alcohol and drugs. The study involved nearly 19,000 people in several European countries.

Study participants who were heavy alcohol drinkers, drinking more than 6 servings per day of alcohol, were found to have more frequent early morning headaches, than those who drank only 1 to 2 servings of alcohol per day.

Those people involved in the study who took certain drugs for depression, anxiety, or insomnia — such as Xanax, Valium, or Zyprexa — experienced a 7.6 to 17.5 percent higher rate of early morning headaches.


4. Bruxism

Retainer mouth guard used to prevent bruxism or teeth grinding.
Bruxism may lead to sleep problems, contributing to morning headaches. Wearing a retainer at night may help.

Bruxism is a widespread condition that involves grinding and clenching of the teeth.

People with bruxism may grind their teeth either in their sleep or while awake, without realizing they are doing it.

Bruxism is a tension-related disorder, which, when severe, can cause frequent headaches.

Sleep bruxism, associated with arousal during sleep, is a specific type of sleep-related movement disorder. People who grind their teeth in their sleep often snore and are also at a high risk of sleep apnea.

Most people with bruxism are unaware that they are grinding their teeth while asleep, so it is essential to know the signs and symptoms of bruxism. These include:

  • grinding of teeth, loud enough to wake the sleep partner
  • unexplained flattened, chipped, or fractured teeth
  • tenderness or pain in the jaw or face
  • fatigued jaw muscles
  • the jaw does not open or close completely
  • unexplained ear pain with no apparent problem with the ear
  • 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

According to a recent study, drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco both increase the risks of bruxism.

5. Serious health problems

Headaches caused by other health disorders may result in pressure being put on pain-sensitive nerve endings. This type of headache is commonly referred to as a secondary headache.

Secondary headaches may result from underlying conditions, including:

When to see a doctor

Not everyone with early morning headaches will necessarily need to see a doctor. Any of the signs below suggest that a person should see a doctor:

  • if two or more headaches occur in a week
  • recurring headaches, particularly in those over age 50, who have not experienced them before
  • a sudden or severe headache accompanied by a stiff neck
  • headache that occurs after a head injury
  • headache accompanied by fever, nausea, or vomiting that is not explained by another disorder
  • headache with confusion, weakness, double vision, or loss of consciousness
  • headache that suddenly changes in pattern or severity
  • chronic headaches in children.
  • headache accompanying weakness or loss of sensation in any body part
  • headache with seizures or shortness of breath
  • frequent headaches in someone with a history of HIV or cancer


Summary

When considering the facts and research surrounding headaches, it is clear to see that many factors overlap.

For example, drinking alcohol commonly increases the risk of insomnia and bruxism. Quitting drinking may help relieve sleep problems and grinding of teeth. In turn, this may lower the incidence of morning headaches.

Mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, can lead to drinking, sleep pattern disruption, or bruxism. Again, these can lead to early morning headaches. In this instance, addressing the mental health disorder should be a person’s priority.

Many causes of headaches are preventable. Someone who has frequent morning headaches may find that making lifestyle changes and seeing the doctor from time to time is all that it takes to keep headaches from interfering with the quality of their daily life.

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