What Causes Early Morning Headaches?

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on May 22, 2017Written by Natalie Silver on May 22, 2017

Overview

Morning headaches can occur for a variety of reasons. You may experience one once in a while after a poor night’s sleep or when experiencing stress, or you may experience them regularly.

Early morning headaches are experienced by 1 in 13 people. They may be the result of a change in your body physiology. In the early morning hours, your body’s level of internal pain reduction may be lowered. Additionally, your body may make more adrenalin during this time, resulting in migraine headaches.

A lack of quality sleep or a sleep disorder may also result in morning headaches. People with sleep disorders are 2 to 8 times more likely to have a morning headache than those without a sleep disorder.

Read on to learn more about early morning headaches.

Migraines and morning headaches

A migraine may be the cause of your early morning headache. Migraines are very common types of headaches. More than 29.5 million Americans get migraines. This type of headache can affect your ability to function, and it generally results in a throbbing headache. Half of these headaches occur between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 30 to 50 percent of those with migraines have disturbed sleep.

What are the different types of headaches?

A headache can cause dull, sharp, or throbbing pain. You may experience the headache briefly, for an hour or less, or for a prolonged period up to a few days.

Types of headaches sometimes associated with morning headaches include:

Insomnia

Insomnia affects your sleep patterns and causes sleep deprivation. This condition is a prevalent cause of morning headaches. Insomnia can prevent you from getting enough sleep by:

  • keeping you up when you are trying to fall asleep
  • awakening you during your sleep
  • causing restless sleep

The lack of sleep caused by insomnia can cause migraine headaches as well.

Insomnia can be treated in a variety of ways and should be discussed with your doctor. Your doctor may ask you to track your sleep patterns to help diagnose the condition. Treating insomnia can include taking medications, getting therapy, or trying a combination of medications and therapy. Reducing insomnia should result in more sleep and relieve morning headaches.

Depression or anxiety

In one study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the most significant factors for chronic morning headaches were anxiety and depression. Mental health conditions can also lead to insomnia, which can further increase your risk for morning headaches.

If you suspect a mental health condition, talk to your doctor. Oftentimes these conditions can be managed with talk therapy, medication, or a combination of treatments. Managing these conditions may help reduce your incidence of morning headaches.

Learn more: Is it sadness or depression? »

Snoring or sleep apnea

Disrupted sleep caused by snoring or sleep apnea may be the source of your early morning headaches. Snoring can be a condition on its own or a symptom of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing at times throughout the night. Generally, headaches associated with sleep apnea last for less than 30 minutes. You can treat sleep apnea with special equipment, such as a continuous positive airway pressure machine.

Grinding your teeth

Grinding your teeth is also known as bruxism. This can occur at night as a sleep disorder, which is referred to as sleep bruxism. It can cause you to have a headache when you wake up in the morning. The headache is generally dull in nature and can be felt near your temples.

Bruxism is also linked to other sleep conditions like sleep apnea, and it may cause damaged teeth and jaw pain. Treatment may involve a mouth guard, stress reduction techniques, or behavior changes.

Strained muscles

Early morning headaches may be the result of strained muscles in your neck. You may need to evaluate your sleep position and the pillows you use to ease this form of early morning headache.

Pillows are supposed to help you maintain a sleeping position that properly supports your neck and spine. Finding the right pillow may take some trial and error. Your pillow should keep your head and neck in a position similar to when you’re standing. Soft pillows may not hold your neck and spine up properly, and hard pillows may create too significant of an angle for your body. Try to replace your pillow as needed in order to sustain the correct sleeping posture.

Medication or alcohol use

Early morning headaches may be the result of medications or alcohol. Medications may interfere with your sleep patterns, resulting in disrupted sleep and early morning headaches. Drinking heavily can result in uneven sleep and an early morning headache, such as a hangover.

Read more: Night sweats and alcohol »

Talk to your doctor if you suspect your medications are causing early morning headaches. Avoid the overconsumption of alcohol to prevent hangovers.

Other health conditions

You may experience early morning headaches because of another health condition. Headaches can be a symptom of a variety of conditions and may not be caused by your sleep patterns at all. Conditions that may cause chronic morning headaches include hypertension and musculoskeletal diseases.

Make sure to discuss all symptoms you experience with your doctor. You may be diagnosed with a different condition altogether.

Treatment

Once your doctor determines the cause for your early morning headaches, they can work with you to create a treatment plan.

Infrequent early morning headaches may be the result of unique circumstances that cause poor sleep quality for a finite period of time. If that is the case, you should practice healthy sleep habits. These include:

  • getting enough sleep (about seven or eight hours for adults)
  • going to bed and waking up at consistent times
  • sleeping in an environment conducive to sleep
  • reducing screen time right before bed

If your headaches are caused by an underlying condition, treating that condition should reduce your incidence of morning headaches. If medications are the cause, work with your doctor to find a different medication. Never stop taking a medication without first talking to your doctor.

Risk factors

You may be more susceptible to early morning headaches if you experience migraines or other chronic headaches. You may also experience them more frequently if you have a sleep disorder or another medical condition.

Outlook

Early morning headaches should be treated according to their cause. Depending on the cause, you may be able to manage the headaches yourself by getting a higher quality of sleep or changing your pillow. Your headaches may also require a conversation with your doctor. Once you and your doctor determine the cause, the headaches should get better with appropriate treatment.

CMS Id: 121838