Why Do I Wake Up With a Headache?

If you wake up in the morning with a pounding headache, you're not alone. Morning headaches -- or at any time of the day -- are something millions of people fight with every day. It could be a type of migraine. It could be something else.

Here's a look at some common causes of morning headaches:

Hangovers

If you’ve ever had a little too much to drink -- as research suggests many adults have -- chances are you've awakened to a headache as part of a hangover.

After a night on the town, when your blood alcohol content drops back to normal or close to it, you start to feel symptoms that can include headaches.

They can be caused by a couple of things. When you drink, the alcohol causes your body to make more urine, which can cause you to become dehydrated. The alcohol also causes your blood vessels to expand, which can lead to headaches.

Along with a headache, you may also have:

If you have more severe symptoms like confusion, seizures, slow breathing, or loss of consciousness, get medical help right away.

Migraine

Migraine headaches affect more than 10% of people worldwide. Along with head pain, your headache may be a migraine if:

  • Your vision is affected.
  • You become sensitive to smells, light, or sounds.
  • You feel sick or nauseous.
  • Your symptoms last anywhere from 4-72 hours, but you don't have any between attacks.

The most common time for a migraine to happen is the early morning as pain medication you took before you went to sleep begins to wear off. But migraines are complicated. They’re different for everybody.

Some people have aura -- light flashes, lines in their vision, and other visual disturbances before, during, or after their headache pain.

Women are three times more likely to have a migraine. About 13 million American women have migraine attacks when they're menstruating.

Morning headaches can be other tension headaches, too. They’re often are associated with depression.

If you have a migraine or headache of any type that continually wakes you in the morning and gets in the way of your work or personal life, a doctor's visit may be in order. Treatments, including over-the-counter and prescription medications, are available.

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Sleep Apnea

This is a condition where your throat muscles partially collapse while you sleep and interrupt your breathing. Other signs of sleep apnea include:

  • Dry mouth
  • Snoring
  • Pauses in breathing during sleep, which often cause you to wake up suddenly
  • Moodiness
  • Waking up to pee often during the night
  • Snoring

Talk with your doctor about your sleep habits. They may suggest a sleep test. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine might help, and lifestyle changes like losing weight and rolling off your back while you sleep could also help you get better rest.

Other Sleep Disorders

The relationship between sleep and headaches is a tricky one. Sometimes headaches are the cause of poor sleep, sometimes they're the result of it.

If it's hard to get to sleep, stay asleep, or if you just wake up too early, you may have insomnia. It’s been tied to some forms of chronic headaches, including morning headaches. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders mess with when you fall to sleep or wake up. They can lead to morning headaches, too.

You may be one of the 70 million Americans with a sleep disorder if you have regular headaches when you wake up, and if you:

  • Are sleepy during the daytime
  • Find yourself depressed often
  • Have trouble concentrating
  • Forget things a lot

If you think you may have a sleep disorder, see your doctor.

Over Medication

A medication overuse headache (MOH) can happen if you’re already prone to headaches and you take a lot of pain meds. A MOH usually hits right when you wake up.

A MOH can be helped along by too much caffeine. For those with chronic headaches, using medication more than 2 or 3 days a week may be too much.

Check with your doctor about this. They can help you treat your headaches without overusing pain meds.

TMJ

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your jaw to your skull. Pain in the joint and its surrounding muscles, caused by things like too much gum chewing or clenching and grinding your teeth at night, can bring a morning headache.

A dentist can prescribe an oral device to keep you from grinding your teeth at night. You should see a doctor if:

  • You have a clicking in the joint.
  • It's tender or swollen.
  • It locks up once in a while.
  • The pain spreads to your head or your neck.

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Tumor

Anyone who's ever had a severe headache has wondered if it’s a tumor.

Probably not.

Only 5 people in 100,000 are diagnosed with a primary brain tumor each year, and most of those start somewhere other than the brain. The chances are much greater that your headache is just a headache.

Doctors look for a few telltale signs of a brain tumor, including:

  • Depression
  • Trouble staying focused
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Personality changes
  • Problems with speech or language
  • Seizures
  • Severe, persistent, or changing headache
  • Vision problems or swelling around your eye
  • Weakness or paralysis

If you have any of those, see a doctor right away.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 09, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Migraine Information Page."

The Migraine Trust: "More than "just" a headache."

American Migraine Foundation: "Sleep Disorders and Headache."

National Headache Foundation: "Headache Categories," "Early Morning Awakening Headache."

Mayo Clinic: "Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms," “Hangovers.” “Insomnia.”

Rains, J. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, March 2008.

Paiva, T. Headache, Nov.-Dec.1995.

American Lung Association: "Learn About Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)," "Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors." "Diagnosing and Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)."

Dodick, D. Headache, March 2003.

American Academy of Sleep Sciences: "Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders."

Colten, H. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem, 2006.

American Migraine Foundation: "Medication Overuse Headache." "Dental Appliances and Headache."

National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research: "TMJ Disorders."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "When Is a Headache a Symptom of a Brain Tumor?"

American Brain Tumor Association: “Signs & Symptoms."

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse: “Drinking Levels Defined.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Headache: Could It Be a Brain Tumor?”

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