Headaches are the most common cause of pain in the United States, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). NINDS also reports that 9 out of 10 adults will have a headache at some point during their life.
Underlying health conditions can cause headaches. These are called secondary headaches. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that makes it harder for you to breathe and can cause secondary headaches. If you have COPD, determining the cause of your headache is critical because of the potential for life-threatening complications.
How COPD causes headaches
COPD is the term for a group of conditions that cause breathing difficulties. Oxygen travels down into your lungs and through the walls of your lungs into your bloodstream. COPD can clog or destroy portions of your lungs, making it difficult to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
COPD is linked to a condition called hypoxia, which occurs when your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen, overworking your heart and slowing down tissue functions. Hypercapnia is also related to COPD, which occurs when you retain too much carbon dioxide.
Headaches from COPD occur from a lack of oxygen to your brain combined with an abundance of carbon dioxide. According to Cedars-Sinai, COPD headaches commonly occur in the morning after waking up due to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your blood while you sleep. If you have morning headaches with COPD, you may also be at risk for sleep apnea.
Because headaches are common, you might find it difficult to tell if your headache is related to COPD or something else. These symptoms may suggest that your headache is due to COPD:
- chest pain
- extreme shortness of breath
- choking upon waking up
- rapid breathing
Other symptoms can occur from hypoxia, which may also happen at the same time as a COPD headache. These symptoms include an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. You may also experience red or purple-toned skin spots from oxygen deprivation.
Treatment for all types of headaches aims to manage pain. Since the cause of COPD headaches is hypoxia, the first course of action is to increase your oxygen intake. You can do this by getting oxygen therapy. In oxygen therapy, oxygen is delivered to you via a nasal tube, face mask, or a tube inserted into your windpipe. Your headache should improve once you’ve taken in an adequate amount of oxygen.
Even with oxygen therapy you may have problems sleeping at night, which can lead to COPD headaches. Breathing troubles can interrupt your sleep, making it more difficult to function properly the next morning. Headaches are common in sleep-deprived people, whether you have COPD or not.
Many medications are available to help treat COPD. You can take some of these medications by inhaling them, and others are available in pill form. Bronchodilators are inhaled and relax the muscles around your airways, relieving coughing and shortness of breath, and improving breathing.
Inhaled and oral steroids can help treat COPD by reducing inflammation and helping to prevent flare-ups. Doctors usually prescribe them for people with severe or frequent flare-ups, but long-term use can have adverse side effects. You should talk to your doctor about using these.
Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics for lung and respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. These infections can occur more frequently in people with COPD. Doctors usually give antibiotics for acute flare-ups, but don’t recommend using them for prevention.
If you experience COPD headaches on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about the best method of treating your pain. Taking over-the-counter pain (OTC) medications for a long time can make your body immune to the effects of the medication, and the NINDS advises against taking pain relievers more than two times per week for this reason.
Other potentially helpful methods for alleviating headache pain include:
- breathing exercises, such as those used in meditation and yoga
- drinking peppermint tea
- getting more sleep
- avoiding sleeping in
- exercising on a regular basis
- avoiding COPD triggers, such as smoke, chemicals, and dust
You may also need to treat sleep apnea if you have COPD. Sleep apnea is characterized by frequent episodes of shallow breathing, which is when breathing stops during sleep. Over time, this can lead to hypoxia and frequent headaches. Doctors often treat sleep apnea using a system called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP helps to keep your airway open while you sleep.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine investigates the effect of CPAP on people with both COPD and sleep apnea and found that using CPAP is associated with reduced mortality in people with these two conditions.
COPD headache treatment is more complicated than simply taking OTC pain relievers. As with other types of secondary headaches, you’ll likely experience fewer occurrences over time by treating the underlying health condition.
Treating COPD can be challenging because a cure isn’t available. The primary goal of treatment is to increase lung function, which will help you breathe easier and help you experience fewer symptoms and complications, including headaches.
It’s also important to consider other causes of headaches. Having COPD doesn’t mean that COPD is causing your headaches. See your doctor to find out the cause of your headaches and for treatment.