10 Causes of Morning Headaches, According to Doctors
Having a headache under any circumstance, at any point in the day can be annoying. But waking up with an aching noggin' in the a.m.? Talk about a downright dreadful way to start a day.
If morning headaches are a ~thing~ for you, it's understandable to wonder what's going on here —and how to shut this unwelcome trend down ASAP. Unfortunately, there are quite a few different things that can cause morning headaches, ranging from grinding your teeth at night to struggling with allergies. The upside? Relief is possible once you can pinpoint what's behind your headaches.
Ahead, doctors offer some insight into why you might be waking up with headaches every morning and how to treat 'em.
Common Types of Morning Headaches
While headaches are a (literal) pain, they're not all created equal. In general, these are the most common types of morning headaches you might have, according to doctors:
- Tension headache. These are the most common type of headaches and usually feel like a band is squeezing your head, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). They're usually caused by muscle tension in your head, scalp, or neck.
- Sinus headache. A sinus headache usually feels like pain behind your browbone orcheekbones. They're usually caused by inflammation or an infection in your sinuses, says Kathryn Boling, M.D., a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center.
- Migraine headache. Migraines are intense headaches that usually impact one side of your head. They can cause symptoms, such as pain, nausea, and vision changes, according to the NLM.
- Cluster headache. A cluster headache leads to pain in and around one eye or side of the head. It tends to happen in "cluster periods" and can last for weeks to months, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Morning Headache Causes
If morning headaches are a regular thing for you, you really should see a doctor, says Amanda Dilger, M.D., an otolaryngologist at Mass Eye and Ear. Docs are the best avenue for you to figure out what could be going on and to rule out more serious (but much less likely) issues, such as a brain tumor. But, while you're waiting for your appointment, mull over these possible causes of your morning headaches.
Sleep Loss and Insomnia
Whether you've been struggling to score ample shut-eye as of late or suffer from chronic insomnia — a condition wherein you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting good quality sleep for three+ nights per week for at least three months, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) — your lack of zzz's might be to blame for those morning headaches.
"Sleep that is less than ideal and takes someone out of their typical rhythm can trigger a headache," says sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It.
A good way to suss out if your morning headaches are linked to insomnia is to simply observe what's happening in your life when you wake up in pain. "If headaches only occur after a difficult night's sleep, that might be a clue [that] there is a relationship," says Dr. Winter.
The next step is to figure out what's causing your sleep struggles. Maybe you're stressed due to an upcoming work presentation. Or perhaps you're scrolling through TikTok until shutting off the lights. Because sleep disturbances can be caused by a myriad of things, determining the root of the problem is essential to getting the right treatment. And while, say, establishing a healthier bedtime routine might help you get some shut-eye (and, in turn, ease your morning headaches), insomnia isn't always the side effect of another issue or condition. So, if you think you're struggling with insomnia, it's important to seek out a health care professional and get it treated — otherwise, it can get worse over time, says Dr. Winter.
That being said, it is worth noting that taking a nap after waking up from a restless night may help get rid of your morning headache — that is, of course, if you can swing it.
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing stops and starts during the night, commonly causing your airway to collapse or become blocked as you sleep, according to the NHLBI. This can keep your brain from getting enough oxygen and lead to a slew of symptoms, including morning headaches.
"In addition to not taking in oxygen when a sleep apnea patient's upper airway collapses, the patient is also not getting rid of carbon dioxide," explains Dr. Winter. "When carbon dioxide builds up in the body, it can cause the characteristic dull headache that many sleep apnea patients awaken with."
A sleep apnea-induced morning headaches tends to go away after about an hour when you breathe out more CO2, he adds. But in some people, it can last longer or trigger a migraine. People with sleep apnea tend to snore and may be overweight, says Dr. Winter. They might also have enlarged adenoids, which can also narrow the airway and increase the risk of the condition, according to the NHLBI.
If you meet any of that criteria or "struggle with excessive daytime sleepiness," sleep apnea might be the cause of your morning headaches, says Dr. Winter. Sound familiar? Then definitely make a visit to your doctor who can best determine diagnosis and treatment, which can involve a slew of different options, including weight loss, special mouthpieces that hold your jaw and tongue a certain way to help you breathe, a breathing device called a CPAP machine, or even surgery to broaden your airway or place an implant to control certain muscles in your airway, says Dr. Winter.
Just because you snore doesn't mean you have sleep apnea. But snoring in and of itself can be another reason for your morning headaches. It's likely due to a combination of impaired breathing (see: sleep apnea above) and disturbed sleep quality from waking up yourself or your bedmate waking you up to stop the snoring, says Dr. Winter.
If you sleep with a partner, figuring out if this is the cause of your morning headaches can be as simple as asking them if you've been snoring. If the answer is "yes," it's not a bad idea to flag it to your primary care physician, as they can help you figure out a fix. "Treatments for snoring are similar to those for sleep apnea," notes Dr. Winter.
Circadian Rhythm Disorder
A circadian rhythm disorder is a problem that happens when your body's internal clock — which tells you when it's time to go to sleep or wake up — is out of sync with your environment, according to the NHLBI. That general sleep disruption can lead to morning headaches, says Dr. Winter.
If you're a shift worker, jet-lagged, or keep inconsistent sleep hours, this could be the cause of your morning headaches. The good news? Treatment is simple — if you can pull it off. "Try to move more towards a structured sleep schedule," says Dr. Winter. That means trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Technically known as sleep bruxism, teeth grinding involves unconsciously grinding or clenching your teeth and jaw at night, according to John Hopkins Medicine. "The mechanical act of grinding your teeth can cause discomfort," says Kiran F. Rajneesh, M.D., director of the Neurological Pain Division at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "It can signal up to the nerves in your brain and cause you to wake up in the morning with a headache [that tends to be] kind of dull and achy." You may also have jaw soreness, adds Dr. Boling.
The right treatment for bruxism "depends on what's causing it," which can include simply being stressed, says Dr. Boling. Taking certain antidepressants such as fluoxetine and paroxetine may also cause teeth grinding and, if bruxism is a huge problem for you, check with your doctor to see if there are other meds you can try, reccomends Dr. Boling.
If you suspect that tension is causing your bruxism, doing your best to lower the levels of stress in your life should help. (Although that's usually easier said than done.) Typically, doctors will recommend that you wear a mouthguard — which you can get at your local drugstore or personally made at the dentist — to help prevent damage to your teeth and change your habits (read: to reduce stress), which can ultimately help prevent your morning headache, says Dr. Rajneesh.
In a perfect world, you'd go to bed with a migraine and wake up feeling amazing. In reality, migraines can last for up to 72 hours, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Meaning, you could hit the hay feeling like crap and wake up the same way. You could also just simply wake up with a migraine if you were exposed to or experienced triggers overnight, such as not getting enough sleep, explains Dr. Rajneesh.
If you're going to bed with a migraine, "make sure you're adequately treating it beforehand," says Dr. Rajneesh. That can mean taking your prescribed medication if you're a regular migraine sufferer or using a medication that combines caffeine and acetaminophen — a combination that research has found to be effective for migraines that's also well-tolerated by most people, says Dr. Boling. And as basic as it might sound, simply getting the recommended seven or more hours of sleep can help. (Related: Home Remedies for Migraine Relief and Prevention)
A slew of allergies can cause you to wake up with a headache. "This may be due to blockage of the nasal passages by allergic inflammation," says Dr. Dilger. "Dust and pet dander are common indoor allergens that can get trapped in mattresses and sheets, which can trigger allergy symptoms at night." Cue the morning headache.
A good way to know if your headaches are due to allergies is to take note of any other symptoms. "If a patient's headaches are due to allergies, they may experience other allergy symptoms such as nasal congestion, runny nose, itchy eyes, and sneezing," explains Dr. Dilger.
If you suspect you have allergies, it's really best to talk to your doctor or an allergist to find out for sure via allergy testing, she says. Going on allergy medication (either OTC or prescription) or making a conscientious effort to avoid any allergens or triggers (e.g. dusting under your bed or using dust mite-proof bedding) should help.
Stress can build up in your body and cause pain, says Dr. Boling. "A lot of people hold stress in their shoulders, upper back, and neck that can travel up and cause tension headaches."
This really comes down to looking at what's going on in your life and at your other symptoms, if you have any, explains Dr. Boling. If your jaw is sore, it's more likely that your morning headache is due to bruxism (which can also be linked to stress), she says. But if you just have a headache, it could be due to stress alone.
You can treat tension headaches caused by stress with ibuprofen, aspirin, and a cool compress on your head, she says. But to stop these from happening again, you need to take on your stress levels directly. (And these simple stress relievers can help.)
Sure, this one is self-inflicted, but it doesn't make the pain any less bad. And it can occur whether you had just one glass of vino or downed multiple cocktails. "A hangover happens because you're dehydrated," says Dr. Boling. Alcohol is a diuretic (i.e. it causes you to pee) and many people also don't drink enough water when they're imbibing on booze, she explains.
To try to get relief in the a.m., make sure to hydrate, take ibuprofen, and rest, says Dr. Boling. And remember to drink a glass of H2O between alcoholic drinks in the future to prevent waking up in pain.
If you tend to rise and caffeinate at a typical time every day and then happen to sleep in, you may wake up with a headache due to caffeine withdrawal. "Caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict, so a change in blood flow — like missing your morning fix — can precipitate a headache," says Dr. Boling.
Luckily, this one has a pretty easy fix: Just drinking a cup of Joe should correct the problem. (It may take an hour or so for you get relief, though.) If you're not near a coffee pot but have access to ibuprofen, taking the OTC med can be another way to ease the pain, says Dr. Boling. And if you're trying to cut back on caffeine, make sure to do so gradually to avoid waking up with a headache, according to the Cleveland Clinic.