When you have a pounding headache, being unconscious might sound like a nice alternative. But what happens when sleep itself is the trigger for your aching head?
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Headaches and sleep problems are partners in crime. “If you’re dealing with chronic headaches, or headaches that seem to appear as soon as you wake up, it could be a sleep disorder,” says Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, sleep medicine physician and Director of the Sleep Disorders Center.
Headaches and slumber troubles are linked in a variety of ways. Being sleep deprived can make you more likely to develop a tension headache during the day. It’s often a vicious cycle, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer explains. “Insomnia can cause tension headaches, which can make it harder to sleep, which can lead to more headaches.” (AHHH!!)
Lack of shuteye can also turn up the volume on other types of headaches. “When people aren’t sleeping well, their pain is magnified,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
And even if you’re well-rested, sleep isn’t always an escape from chronic headaches. Both migraines and cluster headaches can come on while you’re snoozing. Of course, they can also strike when you’re wide awake, and the sun is shining.
Other headache syndromes are closely tied to sleep, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
Sleep apnea and headaches
People with sleep apnea stop breathing off and on for short periods during the night. Snoring is the symptom most commonly associated with sleep apnea. But sleep apnea headaches are also surprisingly common, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
“We think more than half of the people with sleep apnea have headaches,” she says. “The classic scenario is that a person wakes up with a headache each day, which goes away within 4 hours.”
People usually describe apnea-related headaches as pressing pain that occurs on both sides of the head. They differ from migraines, which often cause pulsing pain on one side or the other and are usually accompanied by nausea or other symptoms. And the good news: “Typically when we treat the apnea, the headaches go away,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says.
Like Freddy Krueger, hypnic headaches only come after you when you’re deep in slumber. They can happen every night, sometimes more than once a night.
Hypnic headaches are something of a mystery, says Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer. “We don’t understand them well.” Fortunately, they’re rare, and treatments are available to keep bedtime from feeling like a nightmare.
Exploding head syndrome
Yes, there is a disorder called exploding head syndrome. No, it’s not what it sounds like. (Although it would make a great story if it were.)
This sleep disorder causes a person to hear an imaginary crash or exploding sound in the hazy moments between wake and sleep. It’s often painless, but some people report a stab of pain in the head. (Even if you don’t feel pain, though, it’s freaky to feel like a bomb just went off in your bedroom as you were drifting off to dreamland.)
Like hypnic headaches, exploding head syndrome isn’t well understood, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “We believe it’s a phenomenon that happens as your wake systems shut down and your sleep systems come online. It’s similar to the way your muscles sometimes suddenly jerk as you transition from wake to sleep.”
Treatment for sleep-related headaches
Sleep itself is pretty mysterious, so it’s no surprise that scientists have a lot to learn about the weird and wild ways our sleep systems can go awry. But the link between headaches and sleep problems is fairly straightforward — and mostly treatable.
“Many of my patients found that their headaches disappeared when we treated the insomnia or sleep apnea, Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “If you have chronic headaches, it’s worth exploring whether a sleep disorder is an underlying trigger.”