Morning headaches are a surefire way to get your day off to a crappy start. If you frequently find yourself waking up with headaches, you’re not alone. “Morning headaches are very common,” Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. And, he says, they can happen for a variety of different reasons.
Sometimes headaches just happen and you don’t experience them again, but dealing with them regularly usually points to a specific cause – which also means there might be a way to prevent them. So if you’re asking yourself, “Why do I wake up every morning with a headache?” here are a few potential causes to keep in mind:
1. You have insomnia
Lack of sleep is a big trigger of headaches in general, and studies have shown that morning headaches often come alongside sleep disorders like insomnia. If you regularly have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and you don’t feel well-rested after a night’s sleep, there’s a possibility you’re dealing with this common sleep disorder – and that it could be contributing to why your head is killing you in the morning.
Like a lot of things on this list, preventing morning headaches that are symptomatic of insomnia starts with getting to the root of the problem. According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia can be both its own primary problem or a side effect of other conditions. Plenty of things can cause chronic insomnia, from certain mental disorders to stress and poor sleep habits. To get to the bottom of your insomnia (and possibly your headaches), talk to your doctor.
2. Or you might have sleep apnea
Sleep apnea, a potentially serious condition that causes people to repeatedly stop breathing during their sleep, can cause you to wake up with a headache. The headache is due to lack of oxygen and increased pressure that can develop in your head due to the condition, Vernon Williams, M.D., sports neurologist and director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, tells SELF.
Unfortunately, it can be tough to figure out whether you have sleep apnea on your own, but if your partner complains that you snore a lot, you often feel tired even though you’ve gotten enough sleep, and you’re having morning headaches, it’s time to talk to your doctor, Dr. Williams says.
3. You might actually have migraines
Migraines can occur at any time, but plenty of people develop them overnight or early in the morning. Not only that, but studies have pointed toward migraines following a cycle, meaning people who have migraines typically get them in the same window of time. So it’s possible that the headache you keep waking up with is actually a migraine that hits while you’re sleeping.
Migraines are often genetic, meaning there’s not much you can do to control whether or not you get them, but you can manage them, Dr. Sachdev says. The key is to identify your triggers – stress, poor sleep, and diet are some of the biggies, he says – and avoid them as much as you can. And if you’re pretty sure you have migraines, try to see a specialist who can help you identify your unique triggers and treatments that may help.
4. Maybe you’re going through caffeine withdrawal
This normally happens in people who have multiple cups of coffee throughout the day, but it can happen to anyone, Dr. Williams says. Caffeine may impact blood flow to the brain, Dr. Sachdev says, and if you don’t have as much as usual, it can cause neurological side effects that are similar to withdrawal from other drugs like alcohol. A big part of that: a raging headache. And since many people drink coffee in the morning, it can come on first thing.
To combat caffeine-withdrawal headaches, try to avoid caffeine in the afternoon, Jennifer Kriegler, M.D., a physician in the Center for Headache and Pain at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF. If you’re trying to go caffeine-free but could do without the headache, wean yourself off slowly. She recommends having a quarter cup of decaf with the rest regular, and gradually decreasing how much caffeine you have over time.
5. You could be grinding your teeth at night
Grinding your teeth can cause tension in your temporomandibular joints (TMJ), which connect your lower jaw to your skull in front of your ear, and it can also cause changes in the positioning of your jaw, Dr. Sachdev says. All this leads to tension, which can spark a headache. On top of a headache, you might also feel tightness or pain in your jaw, pain that feels like an earache, or pain or sensitivity in your teeth.
If you suspect that your morning headaches are due to teeth grinding (or your dentist has flagged you as a teeth grinder), talk to your doctor about next steps, which can include wearing a protective bite guard at night, Dr. Kriegler says.
6. You had an alcoholic beverage (or several) before bed
While you’re more likely to have a headache the morning after a rager versus a glass of wine with dinner, it’s possible to get an a.m. headache either way. Alcohol has an effect on several neurotransmitters in your brain associated with headaches, which may be a big reason drinking can lead to headaches or even trigger migraines in vulnerable people, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. According to the Mayo Clinic, red wine in particular is a common headache culprit. Alcohol is also a diuretic (meaning, it causes you to pee), and many people wake up dehydrated after drinking, which can exacerbate a hangover headache or cause one to form, she says.
The solution is pretty simple: Avoid drinking too much. And if you notice that certain types of booze give you a headache more than others, even when you have just a glass, it’s probably best to take a pass on those in the future.
7. In rare cases, it could be something more serious
When people describe morning headaches, Dr. Williams says it gets his attention because there’s a chance it could be due to something potentially serious, like increased pressure from a brain tumor or mass. People with brain tumors often wake up early with a headache because cerebrospinal fluid pressure rises during the night when you’re lying down, Dr. Kreigler says. “If the tumor is causing swelling, this will stretch the coverings of the brain and cause headaches,” she explains.
This is obviously rare and not the most likely cause of morning head pain, so don’t freak out and assume the worst. If you did have a brain tumor, Dr. Williams says you’d probably also experience symptoms like changes in vision, loss of vision, changes in balance, feelings of drowsiness, and changes in your mental status. It’s much more likely that your morning headaches are caused by something much less serious.
How to prevent morning headaches
As you may have noticed, preventing morning headaches is mostly about addressing the root of the issue – whether that’s cutting back on drinking, getting a mouth guard to prevent grinding, or any number of things we talked about above. That said, looking after your sleep hygiene in general is an excellent preventive measure, given how a poor or irregular sleep schedule ups your chance of headaches. Plus, it’s great for your overall health.
A lot of factors can impact your sleep, but to start, the Mayo Clinic suggests sticking to a regular bedtime, getting exercise during the day, watching your food and caffeine intake in the hours before bed, and prioritising stress management so you don’t keep yourself up all night worrying. You might also want to check out our list of mistakes that might be interfering with a good night’s sleep.
The bottom line: If you occasionally wake up to a headache, it’s probably no big deal, but you might benefit from taking a closer look at your sleeping habits. If it happens regularly, though, talk to your doctor so you can find out what’s causing them – and fix it.