Why Do I Get a Headache in the Morning?

By , Category : Pain

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morning headacheWaking up with a headache in the morning, simply put, sucks. Regardless of whether it’s accompanied by nausea or neck pain or not, waking up with a big, banging headache puts a large damper on your routine and can impair whatever activities you try to do throughout the day.

The good news is that there are ways to narrow down the possible cause of why you get headaches all the time. The bad news is that there are a rather large number of suspects to consider.

What Are the Main Culprits of Massive Headaches in the Morning?

So, why do you get a headache in the morning? It can be attributed to many possible causes—it could be dehydration, caffeine withdrawal, poor sleeping habits, or worse, a sleep disorder. Let’s take a closer look at some of the causes of waking up with a headache.
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1. Dehydration
This shouldn’t doesn’t come as a surprise, but water is very important to your body. Unfortunately, mild dehydration is fairly common and about 75% of Americans simply don’t drink enough throughout the day. Headaches are one of the initial symptoms of dehydration and if you haven’t been getting enough fluids during the day, you’re likely to wake up with a major morning headache thanks to adding in more dry hours while sleeping.

2. Bad Pillow
Specifically, bad neck support. If you’re waking up with a headache and neck pain, you may not support your neck well enough, depending on how you sleep. If such a position is held for too long, say the length of a night’s sleep, you will find yourself waking up with a tension headache. Alternatively, using too many pillows can leave your head propped up and neck bent during the night, further promoting a tension headache.

3. Grinding Teeth
Also called “bruxism,” people sometimes grind their teeth during the night. This repetitive motion places stress on the mouth and facial muscles, which may explain why you get headaches so often. Bruxism doesn’t have many identified causes but it is known that certain medications can cause nighttime teeth grinding as a side effect.

4. Pregnancy
Among the many, many effects pregnancy has on the body, one of them is increased blood volume and circulation. This can result in pressures that lead to getting headaches a lot of the time. Alternatively, the increased blood flow and volume cannot cause morning headaches on its own, but may make any existing headaches felt more strongly.

5. Lack of Sleep
Sometimes it’s not the quality of your sleep, but the quantity that counts. If you find yourself routinely getting under four hours of sleep each night, the deprivation can give you a banging headache in the morning.

6. Caffeine Withdrawal
This most commonly applies to caffeine, but technically it can happen with other substances as well. If you’re used to drinking coffee to get through your days, there is going to be a large break period between the evening and when you have your next fix. For some, this duration is enough to trigger the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal and the timing means you could be waking up with a bad headache every day and not realizing the cause. Oh, and caffeine is a diuretic, so it can contribute to dehydration, another cause of headaches.

7. Hangover
These aren’t necessarily a form of withdrawal, but hangovers can still cause some major headaches in the morning due to the havoc wreaked in the aftermath of inebriation. Among the effects alcohol has on your body is that it works like a diuretic, so you won’t retain as much water and can get dehydrated. Alcohol is also a vasodilator, so it makes blood vessels widen and throws your circulation off, which can further contribute to your headaches.

8. Medication
One of the ironies of pain medication is that it can sometimes cause morning headaches all on its own. This can happen with both prescription and over-the-counter pain medications and is known as a “rebound headache.” What happens is your body gets too used to being in the medicated state, which results in suffering a headache when the medicine wears off. If your medication schedule means it wears off during the night, the result will be waking up with a headache every morning.

9. Sinuses
The sinuses are little pockets in your skull that manage pressure and certain fluid drainages along your face. Various situations ranging from illness (sinus infection) or the pressure imposed by a sleep position can impair their ability to drain or make them swell. Regardless of cause, the result is that you find yourself waking up with a sinus headache.

10. Blood Sugar
Barring certain forms of sleepwalking, you are not going to be eating while you sleep. Depending on what your habits are during the day, this can result in your blood sugar levels dropping enough during the night that you wake up with a hypoglycemic headache. Since dietary habits and eating times aren’t always consistent, it’s possible you will only experience a hypoglycemic headache every so often rather than every morning.

11. Sleep Apnea
If you’ve been waking up with a headache each morning, it might be because you weren’t getting enough air. Sleep apnea is a condition where you actually stop breathing for brief periods during the night. As you might imagine, your body doesn’t respond well to repeated bouts of small-scale suffocation and it can leave you with a pounding headache in the morning.

Sleep apnea has two forms: obstructive and central. In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in your throat are relaxing enough to block off your airway during the night. In central sleep apnea, your brain is failing to signal your breathing muscles. Obstructive sleep apnea does not always wake you up during the night and it’s possible to think you had a good night’s sleep, when in fact it was anything but.

The above list is far from exhaustive, but it’s a good start when trying to evaluate possible culprits. To better narrow down the origin of your morning headaches, however, it helps to ask yourself a few extra questions.

Is Your Headache One-Sided or Centralized Between the Eyebrows?

If your headache in the Morning is behind your eyes or eyebrows, it’s likely to be a tension headache. However, if the pain feels like it’s concentrated on just one side of your head (a “half-headache”) you may be experiencing what is known as a cluster headache.

Rare, but debilitating, cluster headaches are a type of headache that happens in cycles (clusters) that can last weeks or months. The pain of a cluster headache tends to focus behind one eye or on one side of the head.

How Does Your Headache Feel?

  • Tension headaches are characterized by a tightening sensation, as if a band were being constricted about your head.
  • Cluster headaches give off a more “burning” or “piercing” sort of pain.
  • The pain of a migraine headache can be overwhelming to the point of being crippling.
  • Migraine sufferers sometimes also experience brief (five to 30 seconds long) periods of sudden, stabbing pain around the ear.

Do You Get Headaches after Morning Workouts?

Sometimes your headache might not come immediately in the morning but instead seems to arrive after finishing your early exercise routine. If you notice that you get headaches after working out every day, there may be a connection. Exercise can trigger a headache for a few different reasons: muscle tension, effects on blood pressure, or (most commonly) you aren’t drinking enough during the workout and are getting dehydrated.

Are Your Bedtime Snacks Causing Headaches in the Morning?

As mentioned above, low blood glucose may be one cause of your headache in the morning . Even if you make sure you eat something before you go to bed, hypoglycemia could still be the issue if the snack in question is something your body burns through too quickly. Mixing in some protein may help, as well as a slow-release carbohydrate.

Are Severe Morning Headaches Associated with Other Symptoms?

Certain illnesses, like meningitis or brain cancer, can manifest with headaches alongside other symptoms. Seek medical attention immediately if your headache is accompanied by:

  • Fever;
  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting;
  • Dizziness or disorientation;
  • Numbness;
  • Weakness;
  • Confusion;
  • Difficulty seeing; or
  • A stiff neck.

If your morning headaches seem to be getting worse than usual, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Also, the sudden emergence of a big, stabbing, or otherwise debilitating headache should always be investigated.

On the less-severe side of the scale, headaches accompanied by stuffiness or flu-like symptoms may be just a mild infection that has given you a sinus headache. Cluster headaches also sometimes happen with a watery eye or runny nose, but only on the same side of the face as the pain.

However, if you’re waking up with a headache and nausea, it could be a migraine. Migraines often, but not always, present with trademark visual auras as well as other visual distortions, as well as slurring of speech, or one-sided tingling and weakness. Sensitivity to light and sound are also symptoms.

What Makes Your Headache Worse?

  • Tension headaches are not normally aggravated by physical activity but can make you sensitive to bright light or noise.
  • As mentioned above, physical activity can be why you get a headache after working out. This can be due to dehydration or the stress and activity triggering a migraine.
  • Migraines are known to have a variety of triggers depending on the individual, including stress, hunger, red wine, or dehydration.

What Makes Your Headache Better?

  • As mentioned above, dehydration or low blood sugar can cause headaches in the morning, so if having a meal seems to resolve your symptoms, that’s a likely culprit.
  • If coffee is what gives your headache relief, then it may be caused by caffeine withdrawal.
  • Migraines are sometimes treatable with rest and by minimizing noise and bright lights.
  • If you are on medication, stopping may ease the headache. Since you are likely on your medication for a specific reason, it’s extremely important to never stop taking any medicine without your doctor’s approval.

When Are Morning Headaches More Serious? Which Diseases Are Associated with Morning Headaches?

  • The diseases most commonly associated with headaches are meningitis, an infection of the spinal cord, or a brain tumor. Shingles can also trigger a headache.
  • Other possibilities include trigeminal neuralgia (when a blood vessel in the face presses against a nerve), aneurysm, temporal arteritis, or other autoimmune disorders.
  • None of these cause headaches in the morning specifically, and all can cause bad headaches, at any time of day.

Healthy Sleeping Habits: Remember these Tips to Relieve Headaches in the Morning

Tension headaches brought on by the way you sleep are more common than most other forms of morning headache, so it can be beneficial to try adjusting your bedtime habits as a first-line home remedy.

  • Use fewer pillows, ideally just one or two.
  • Sleep on your front or back, not the side, since this leaves your neck bent during the night.
  • Try wearing a mouth guard to avoid grinding teeth in your sleep.
  • Have a light snack and glass of water before bed.
  • Set and maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

If you typically suffer from a headache in the morning, try some of the options listed above. As always, speak with your doctor first.

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Dr. Richard Foxx, MD

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Richard M. Foxx, MD has decades of medical experience with a comprehensive background in endocrinology, aesthetic and laser medicine, gynecology, and sports medicine. He has extensive experience with professional athletes, including several Olympic competitors. Dr. Foxx practices aesthetic and laser medicine, integrative medicine, and anti-aging medicine. He is the founder and Medical Director of the Medical and Skin Spa located in Indian Wells, California, at the Hyatt Regency Resort. Dr. Foxx is certified by the National Board of Medical Examiners... Read Full Bio »