Sleep Apnea and Headaches

A fairly dangerous condition if left untreated, sleep apnea is a disorder wherein breathing is disrupted during the night, limiting the body and brain’s access to oxygen. Sleep apnea occurs in roughly 10% of adults in the US and may be the trigger for many long term health problems including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, and even cancer. Seeking attention from a medical practitioner is the first step if you are experiencing signs and symptoms of sleep apnea.

One very common symptom of sleep apnea is the experience of morning headaches, as well as other common signs and symptoms that may include:

  • Snoring
  • Gasping or choking upon waking
  • Waking up feeling tired
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Obesity or weight gain
  • Depression, irritability, and mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble staying awake during activity (such as driving)

Does Sleep Apnea Cause Headaches?

Sometimes with certain symptoms and health conditions, it’s hard to tell if things going on in your body are related or are simply coincidental. When it comes to headaches and sleep disorders, the two are often interdependent. Because people with sleep disorders often suffer from headaches, some people may wonder if the headaches causes the sleep disorder, or the sleep disorder causes the headache.

There is some research that indicates that headaches sufferers may have a greater risk (between 2 and 8 times greater, according to a study cited in Reviews in Clinical Medicine) of developing sleep disorders, including sleep apnea. This means that sometimes, when headaches and sleep apnea go together, it is difficult to determine which came first.

Many people who struggle with a sleep disorder in addition to headaches find themselves asking the question: Can sleep apnea cause headaches?

The answer is absolutely yes.

But more than simply knowing that there is a connected between sleep apnea and headaches, it becomes important to know why so that a solution can ultimately be found.

Why Does Sleep Apnea Cause Headaches?

Because of the lack of oxygen that comes from sleep apnea, headaches are reported by very many sleep apnea sufferers. Low oxygen levels cause the blood vessels to widen in order to take in more oxygen, which can cause pressure inside the head, creating vascular headaches.

During healthy function, the brain uses approximately 20% of the available oxygen and the remaining oxygen is passed on to the rest of the body. When the respiratory system takes in limited oxygen, such as in cases of sleep apnea, the brain needs more oxygen than the normal 20%, and the cardiovascular system has to work harder to try to deliver that to the brain. This can increase the intracranial pressure, and possibly be the cause of sleep apnea morning headaches.

Sleep Apnea may be linked to various types of headaches, including:

  • Cluster Headaches
  • Migraine Headaches
  • Hypnic Headaches (headaches that affect people over age 50, waking them from sleep)
  • Paroxysmal hemicrania (headache around the eye)

Sleep Apnea and Migraine Headaches

Because lack of sleep and stress can be a trigger for migraines, this type of headache is often linked to those suffering from sleep disorders, including sleep apnea.

As the brain struggles to gain enough oxygen each night during sleep, there is possibility that gradual damage is being caused to the brain. Left untreated, sleep apnea connected with migraines can lead to high blood pressure, depression, memory loss, and even a high risk of stroke. While sleep apnea can be treated, some of the damage done to the brain during an extended period of going untreated may actually be irreversible.

While migraines do not have a definitive cure, sleep apnea can be effectively treated and this may provide relief for those who migraines are the result of sleep apnea. Breathing devices, specialized pillows, adjustable mattresses, weight loss, and even surgery are all available options to help reduce the occurrence of sleep apnea episodes and allow the brain to receive the oxygen it needs. This, in turn, can reduce the occurrence of migraines and other headaches which are related to the sleep disorder.

Sleep Apnea, Headaches, and Pinched Nerves

Some sleep experts have discovered that there may be an association between migraines and sleep apnea, possibly related to the fact that sleep apnea sufferers have to begin sleeping in a new position. While most people prefer to sleep on their backs, those with sleep apnea may struggle to breathe as well so specialists recommend sleeping on the side or the stomach in order to open up breathing passages.

As a significant number of sleep study patients find themselves trying to sleep in a new position, they also may find that they experience a pinched nerve in the neck. This pinched nerve could be the cause of various types of headaches, including migraine, cluster headaches, and intractable headache. If this is the case, then the solution is a simple one that may be managed with the addition of a specialized sleep apnea pillow, or the use of an adjustable mattress that will make sleeping more comfortable for you.

As headaches and sleep apnea are interrelated, determining the source of the headache will make a huge difference in understanding how to treat it. If you can’t narrow it down yourself, your doctor or sleep specialist should be able to help you with determining how to treat your headache if it is related to sleep apnea. The first course of action, of course, will likely be to make sure the sleep apnea is being appropriately treated and your body is becoming healthier again.


Not only does treatment for sleep apnea have the ability to reduce the frequency of migraines and other headaches, it also improves the long term health. Treating sleep apnea and restoring healthy sleep patterns can reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, stroke, memory loss, and other dangerous conditions. If you or your partner is concerned about headache related to sleep apnea, just a few lifestyle changes could improve your health and change your world for the better.

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