What Is the Connection between Headaches and Sleep Apnea?

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  • Written By: Marlene Garcia
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 26 December 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
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Headaches and sleep apnea symptoms are commonly found together, with morning headaches most likely. Some people who suffer chronic headaches upon waking might also suffer bouts of sleep apnea at night, defined as five or more instances of airway obstruction per hour. Headaches and sleep apnea typically improve with treatment, using a continuous positive airflow pressure mask during the night.

Different forms of headache and sleep apnea might be reported by patients. The headache might resemble a migraine, a cluster headache, or tension headache. Morning headaches and sleep apnea are two symptoms doctors typically explore when diagnosing sleep disorders. Some patients become very sleepy during the day because of a lack of adequate rest during the night.

Up to three-fourths of people who suffer headaches upon waking also have obstructive sleep apnea. This condition occurs when muscles at the back of the throat malfunction, blocking the airway. Some patients stop breathing hundreds of times each night, with such episodes lasting 10 seconds or more each time. A less common condition that causes headaches and sleep apnea is a central nervous system disorder, which occurs when the brain does not communicate properly with muscles that control the airway in the throat. Heart disease represents a common cause for this disorder.


Most people who suffer from sleep apnea snore loudly during the night. They might gasp for air when the throat muscles open to permit resumed breathing. When this pattern repeats many times during the night, patients tend to fall asleep easily during the day while watching television, reading, or as a passenger in a vehicle. They might have trouble concentrating and become irritable from lack of sleep.

The best treatment for headaches and sleep apnea consists of a device that provides pressurized air to keep the throat muscles open during sleep. Side effects from these masks include a feeling of claustrophobia in some patients. Others find the device uncomfortable to wear or suffer from sinus problems, such as a runny nose. About one-third of patients treated for headaches and sleep apnea with continuous positive airflow pressure equipment stop using it because of discomfort.

Certain people face higher risks of sleep apnea, including Mexicans, African Americans, and Pacific Islanders. The condition is more common in men, especially those between 40 and 60 years old. Obesity and alcohol abuse increase the risk, along with smoking. Smokers are 40 times more apt to suffer from sleep apnea than nonsmokers, one study found.

The condition has also been linked to diabetes, obesity, and certain physical features. People born with large necks or large tongues suffer more from headaches and sleep apnea. Other features associated with the disorder include an overbite or receding chin. Soft palate disorders, and a condition where the head is wider and shorter than average, also contribute to sleep apnea.



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