Headaches from Sleep Deprivation

Posted by Darian Dozier on Nov 27, 2023 7:09:00 AM

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Getting enough sleep is important for helping the body and mind stay healthy. For most people, getting enough sleep can help them remain symptom free and overall healthy. However, if you are experiencing constant headaches, and don't get enough sleep, that could be the reason why. Continue reading to learn more about sleep deprivation headaches and what you can do to improve your symptoms.  

The connection between sleep deprivation and headaches

Headaches are a common symptom in those that do not get enough sleep. The current recommendation is that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep. Individuals vary in their own personal needs, but sleeping less or more than this on a consistent basis can lead to several chronic issues. 

A majority of the U.S. adult population does not get enough sleep, and may be experiencing these headaches. It's still unknown to researchers why this link even exists. Studies have shown that the relationship is bidirectional, however, meaning that sleep deprivation makes headaches worse, and headaches can interrupt sleeping, worsening sleep deprivation. 

There are some associations between headaches and certain sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, which can help one narrow down the diagnosis. However, even the reason behind the relationship between headaches and those disorders is unknown.    

What headaches from a lack of sleep feel like

There are different types of headaches, but the two most common associated with sleep deprivation are tension headaches and migraines.

Tension headaches are common in people who do not get enough sleep and are under immense amounts of stress. If you have a stressful job and only get a headache near the end of a tough workday, or after a period of high stress, then you most likely have a tension headache. These are described as tightening or pressure around the sides of your head. Other causes of tension headaches include hunger, depression, and sleep deprivation.

Migraines are headaches that are either one or two-sided, and cause light and sound sensitivity, nausea, and debilitating pain. They can last from an hour to a few days, and can have an aura associated. Researchers are not sure what causes migraine headaches, but they do believe that abnormal nervous system activity in the brain is a significant contributor.

Some of the same brain structures that are involved in migraines are also involved in sleep. There is an association between migraines and sleep, however, experts do not completely understand the relationship between the two. Sleep can improve migraines, but the lack of sleep and poor sleep quality are related to worse symptoms. Migraines are also associated with a variety of sleep disorders, including insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and sleepwalking. Researchers don't know why this is the case, so more research is necessary. 

REM and Headaches

There are four stages of sleep that people progress through each night. All of them are important for waking up feeling refreshed. The last stage is called rapid eye movement, or REM, and is the stage where dreaming happens.

There are a few headaches that are associated with the REM stage of sleep. One of them is a cluster headache. They start and end within about an hour, on average. Symptoms include eye watering and facial sweating. There are also changes in part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The time of day may also be a possible factor.

Chronic paroxysmal hemicrania is similar to cluster headaches. However, the episodes are shorter and more frequent. It's unclear why these occur during REM sleep, however.

Finally, hypnic headaches affect individuals over the age of 50. They typically impact both sides of the head, and can involve nausea or light sensitivity. A hypnic headache can wake a person from sleep and occur several times a night. 

Headaches associated with sleeping disorders 

A lack of sleep can exacerbate headaches, but sleep disorders can actually cause headaches. One of them is bruxism and teeth grinding. Bruxism is a disorder when individuals clench their jaw and grind their teeth. It's common for this to happen at night, and is associated with migraine headaches. Some studies suggest that this connection is due to the activation of nerves from bruxism that are related to pain and headaches. However, it is still under investigation.

As mentioned earlier, sleep apnea is associated with headaches. This disorder is when the airway is obstructed, most often from a large tongue or collapsed muscles. Symptoms of this include difficulty breathing, loud snoring, and lower oxygen levels. A common sign of sleep apnea is a tension-like headache first thing in the morning. It's unsure why this happens, but experts attribute headaches to the higher level of carbon dioxide levels, dilated blood vessels int he brain, poor sleep quality, and even higher pressures in the brain.

Other sleeping disorders include insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, sleep-wake disorders and sleepwalking. 

Treating and preventing headaches from sleep deprivation 

Doctors may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers as treatment for temporary headaches. Medications that can help include acetaminophen, aspirin, and NSAIDs, like ibuprofen. Be sure to follow the instructions for dosage and timing to avoid adverse effects. It may also be helpful to consult with your healthcare provider to make sure that you are not taking anything that could worsen any pre-existing conditions (i.e. liver disease or kidney disease). 

Outside of medication, there are behavioral things you can do to improve your symptoms. Resting in a dark and quiet room, placing a cool compress on your forehead, staying hydrated, and participating in relaxation activities like meditation, can be especially helpful. A biofeedback device may also be of use, as it measures the tension in your muscles. Using this device can make you more aware of when you are tensing your muscles so you can relax them. 

Headache prevention is important for people who regularly get headaches, or have headaches that are severely disruptive to their lives. Prior to bedtime, there are a few things you can try to help you avoid developing a morning headache: 

  • Following a regular sleep schedule with the same wake and sleep time every day 
  • Reducing stress before bed through relaxation exercises 
  • Decreasing the consumption of caffeine 
  • Limiting alcohol intake and smoking 
  • Exercising regularly 
  • Avoiding migraine triggers 

If you struggle with morning headaches, then please click the orange button to take a free online sleep test and talk with one of our sleep health professionals. 

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