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Are Sleep Headaches Rare?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 20 Apr 2016 | comments*Discuss
 
Sleep Headache Trigger Factors Migraines

The simple answer is yes, headaches that start during sleep, and that actually wake you from sleep, are quite rare. It is much more usual for a headache to come on during the day. Common trigger factors include tiredness, stress, tension in muscles, and different foods. Sleep usually helps most headaches, even migraines, and most headaches are gone after a restful night. There are various causes of headaches that occur during sleep; some are more serious than others.

Hypnic Headaches That Occur at Night

One of the most likely explanations for a headache that starts during sleep is that you are experiencing a hypnic headache. These are often also called alarm clock headaches, as they tend to come on at the same time during the night and, as the pain intensifies, it wakes you up at the same time, either right in the middle of the night, or very early in the morning, just as an alarm clock would.

This type of sleep headache tends to occur mostly in older people; it is unusual to get hypnic headaches if you are under 50. What causes them is still something of a mystery and they can last anywhere between ten minutes and two hours. The pain experienced is more annoying than disabling, ranging from moderate to mild. Many people may have very mild sleep headaches that don’t develop enough to wake them, but may notice a dull ache if they are awoken by something else.

Sleep Apnea and Sleep Headaches

Another cause of sleep headaches is sleep apnea. This can occur in people who snore very badly, and it is common in very overweight and obese people. When lying down, the soft tissues of the throat and upper airways are dragged down by the weight of the neck, causing compression of the airways. As air is forced in and out, the vibrations of the soft tissue, and the tiny gaps left for air to escape causes the snoring. Apnea occurs when the flow of air is cut off completely – and the person stops breathing for anywhere between a few second and a minute. Eventually, the body recognises that it is not getting enough oxygen, and forces breathing to restart.

People who suffer from sleep apnea often wake up very tired, as their sleep has been constantly interrupted. They can also wake during the night with a bad headache, caused by the variations in their breathing pattern. The brain does not respond well to not getting a good and constant supply of oxygen and the blood vessels in the skull and brain can become disrupted, causing the distension that leads to vascular headaches.

Problems with Arteries

A rare condition that results in generalised inflammation in the arteries of the face and head can cause sleep headaches, as blood vessels in the head tend to dilate when lying down. This condition really only occurs in the elderly, and produces other symptoms, such as fever, pain when chewing, pain when swallowing and impairment of hearing and vision. Just getting a headache at night does not indicate giant cell arteritis, particularly if you are under 70 years old.

Even Rarer Causes of Sleep Headaches

The rarest causes of sleep headaches are brain tumours and strokes. Neither of these conditions tend to cause general headaches. Mini strokes, known as transient ischaemic attacks, tend to cause a range of different symptoms, including dizziness, losing balance, feeling numb in different parts of the body, or vision or hearing problems. All of these tend to be short-lived but can indicate that a more serious stroke is imminent, so these symptoms should always be checked out.

Brain tumours are even less likely to cause night-time headaches, but they can cause headaches that are present first thing in the morning. Brain tumours usually cause a range of other symptoms too – including sickness, very bad headaches in the day, sight problems and fits.

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Donna - Your Question:
Had a motorbike accerdent a few weeks ago ended up with hairline fraction to my arm shoulder damage and having a MRI scan soon on mg spine but lately ive been having really bad headaches thats woken me up in the middle of the night the pain is really bad like a stabbing pain can anyone help me I do take nerve pain meds at night which gave been upped as the nerve damage I got it bad. tks

Our Response:
I'm afraid we cannot recommend specific medication, apart from the obvious such as Paracetamol. But if you are having headaches as bad as you say, you may wish to take yourself back to your GP. I hope they clear up soon.
HeadacheExpert - 21-Apr-16 @ 2:07 PM
Had a motorbike accerdent a few weeks ago ended up with hairline fraction to my arm shoulder damage and having a MRI scan soon on mg spine but lately ive been having really bad headaches thats woken me up in the middle of the night the pain is really bad like a stabbing pain can anyone help me i do take nerve pain meds at night which gave been upped as the nerve damage i got it bad .tks
Donna - 20-Apr-16 @ 7:45 PM
I often wake up in the morning before my alarm clock goes off with minimal pain in my head. As it is early I will try to get back to sleep but then I wake up with a lot of pain in my head. It's as though forcing myself to go to sleep brings on or exacerbates the pain and then the pain can last three or four days. It is very difficult to explain. I have a diagnosis of Occipital Neuralgia so I always have a headache but this makes it much worse.
Sharon - 7-Dec-15 @ 7:37 PM
Deb - Your Question:
I saw a comment from someone named Dena who posted in 2012 that she experiences headaches that wake her in the middle of the night and go away when she sits up. Her symptoms are very consistent with what I experience several times a month, and I wanted to try to find out if Dena ever found a cause for these headaches or a treatment that worked. My headaches can be severe, but neither my internist nor my neurologist can find any solution to my issue.

Our Response:
I'm afraid we cannot help you contact Dena personally. We can only hope she reads this page again and replies directly to you comment. We also hope your neurologist will be able to get to the bottom of your complaint.
HeadacheExpert - 30-Nov-15 @ 10:28 AM
I saw a comment from someone named Dena who posted in 2012 that she experiences headaches that wake her in the middle of the night and go away when she sits up.Her symptoms are very consistent with what I experience several times a month, and I wanted to try to find out if Dena ever found a cause for these headaches or a treatment that worked.My headaches can be severe, but neither my internist nor my neurologist can find any solution to my issue.
Deb - 29-Nov-15 @ 3:04 AM
Oftentimes when I drink a large glass of wine, either red or white, or if I have an alcohol cocktail in the early evening, I awaken from sleep with a slight headache. This did not occur over the years and has only become a common occurrence the last few years. I am 66, and have never abused drinking alcohol.
Mike - 6-Dec-13 @ 10:13 AM
What do you do about hypnic headaces? Or any night time headache?I wake every night, several times a night with an extreme head-vise like headache.I take Fioricet, but am concerned about rebound headaches.What other medicatiuon is out there to prevent this?
Peggy - 28-Sep-11 @ 5:14 PM
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