Complications of sleep apnea can range from high blood pressure to heart problems and diabetes. But emerging research suggests that sleep apnea can sometimes trigger migraine episodes.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to briefly stop breathing when you’re sleeping. The most common type, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), occurs when the throat muscles relax and block your airway.

This article will explore the connection between sleep apnea and migraine, as well as with other types of headaches.

Research suggests a link between sleep apnea and migraine episodes.

According to a 2020 review of studies, around 8% of people with OSA have migraine. Treatment of OSA may help decrease the number of migraine episodes, their length, and pain levels during an episode.

Researchers don’t fully understand the connection between sleep apnea and different types of headaches, including migraine. One possible link is hypoxia (low oxygen supply). During sleep apnea episodes, oxygen levels drop, which may lead to changes in the blood vessels in your brain and trigger migraine.

Another theory involves the frequent awakenings caused by sleep apnea. These interruptions can lead to poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation, both known triggers for migraine.

Yet another theory suggests that sleep apnea can cause inflammation, which can trigger or worsen migraine episodes.

Aside from migraine, sleep apnea can cause other types of headaches.

Morning headaches

Morning headaches are the most common type of headache that people with sleep apnea have. Almost one-third of people with OSA experience this type of headache.

Sleep apnea morning headaches are triggered by hypoxia. People usually describe them as a dull, throbbing pain that happens when you wake up. Unlike migraine episodes, these headaches typically go away quickly.

Tension headaches

Around 15% of people with OSA have tension (stress) headaches. They can feel like a steady ache on both sides of your head. The pain can radiate from the neck, lower back of the head, and eyes.

Hypnic headaches

Hypnic headaches are also called alarm-clock headaches. This is because they can wake you up from sleep, usually at the same time several times a week. Similar to morning headaches, they typically go away quickly but may give you other symptoms like nausea.

Hypnic headaches mainly affect older people.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are severe headaches on one side of the head, usually around the eye. They can also include additional symptoms like runny nose or excessive eye tearing.

Unlike migraine episodes, these headaches go away relatively quickly, but they do occur in clusters.

While the primary research focus is often on how sleep apnea can trigger migraine, the reverse connection is also being explored.

In theory, migraine — particularly chronic migraine episodes — can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and cause sleep disorders like sleep apnea.

However, researchers have not yet established whether migraine actually causes sleep apnea. A 2022 study found the opposite trend: People with migraine may have a lower risk for sleep apnea.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional. Signs that you should reach out include:

Be sure to seek medical advice if you have recurring migraine episodes. Doctors can recommend effective medications to both prevent and treat migraine.

Let’s answer a couple of questions that people with sleep disorders and migraine frequently ask their doctors.

Can migraine episodes be caused by sleep disorders other than sleep apnea?

Aside from sleep apnea, different sleep disorders may trigger migraine episodes. This is especially true for sleep disorders that cause sleep deprivation, like insomnia.

Can using a CPAP help with migraine episodes?

CPAP therapy is frequently used to treat sleep apnea. CPAPs can improve your sleep quality by maintaining open airways during sleep.

Improved sleep quality and oxygen levels can reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine episodes.

The connection between sleep apnea and migraine episodes is complex. Sleep apnea can trigger migraine episodes through mechanisms like hypoxia, poor sleep quality, and inflammation.

On the other hand, chronic migraine can disrupt sleep and potentially lead to sleep apnea, although research on this topic is still ongoing.

Sleep apnea can also cause other types of headaches aside from migraine, most commonly morning headaches. If you experience symptoms of sleep apnea or migraine, contact a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.