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Can Sleep Apnea Cause Headaches?

By Manjari Bansal
Headaches in the morning can be a sign of sleep apnea. Find out more about how the disorder can cause headaches.

Do you frequently wake up with a headache in the morning? If so, it may be due to sleep apnea. Headaches, particularly ones that occur in the morning, are a common symptom of the disorder. Read on to learn more about the relationship between an aching head and sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea and Headaches: What’s the Link?

According to a 2020 study published in Brain Sciences, morning headaches are a well-established symptom of obstructive sleep apnea that can potentially affect your everyday activities. In fact, out of 1,131 patients who had sleep apnea and underwent a sleep study, around 29% of them reported having morning headaches.  

“Lack of sleep during the night is a common cause of headaches for many peoplehowever, those who suffer from sleep apnea may experience more frequent headaches,” Robert Berry, DDS, a dentist at Mountain Aire Dentistry in Colorado, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

What's the reason for this? “While suffering from sleep apnea, the individual stops breathing periodically throughout the night, and this oxygen deprivation can be to blame for headaches,” Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

“As this occurs over and over, the air becomes trapped in the lungs. This is de-oxygenated air, which is full of carbon dioxide, which is toxic. This builds up in the bloodstream and causes vessels in the brain to dilate. This dilation results in a painful headache. So essentially, the low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels that are present during the repetitive episodes of apnea throughout the night are the culprit for the headaches one may experience,” Schiff says.

According to a 2020 study published in Pain and Therapy, there is also a decrease in pain tolerance when sleep time is reduced and an improvement in pain tolerance when sleep time is increased. The reason for this could lie in the hypothalamus.

Both sleep and pain processes are regulated by the hypothalamus in our brain. This part of the brain maintains your natural circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock) and sleep cycles, while also playing an important role in pain sensations. Sleep disruptions can cause instability in the hypothalamus, which may reduce your tolerance towards pain and therefore cause you to feel morning headaches more acutely. 

Think you may have sleep apnea? Start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.