A sleep apnea headache usually happens upon waking and involves pain described as a pressing sensation on both sides of the head. It’s believed that they occur due to sleep apnea.

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Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS), a condition in which an individual has brief episodes where they stop breathing while sleeping, affects between 2% and 5% of middle-aged adults or those ages 45–64 years. A 2020 study on morning headaches among people with OSAS found that, among their participants, about 29% reported morning headaches.

Read on for more information about sleep apnea headaches, how they feel, and treatment options if you have them.

Learn more about sleep apnea.

According to The International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-3), to be considered a sleep apnea headache, a headache must meet the criteria for a sleep apnea headache.

Headaches must be present when you awaken after sleeping. The headaches start with your sleep apnea or on the diagnosis of your sleep apnea. There needs to be clinical proof that the headaches are because of sleep apnea, such as:

  • Your headaches get worse when your sleep apnea gets worse, or they get better when your sleep apnea improves.
  • Your headaches are not explained by any other diagnosis.
  • Your headaches have at least one of these characteristics:
    • They happen 15 or more days a month.
    • They affect both sides of your head, feel like something is pressing your head, and do not include nausea, photophobia, or phonophobia.
    • Your headaches resolve within 4 hours.

Sleep apnea headaches tend to occur in the morning, usually upon waking, but some people may also have them in the middle of the night. People report these headaches feel like a pressing pain that affects both sides of the head that may last from 30 minutes to 4 hours.

The headaches tend to respond well to treatment. They are different from migraine as they do not usually involve other symptoms like nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, or an aura.

When to call your doctor

If you are having headaches when you wake up, speak with a healthcare professional, especially if you have sleep apnea.

Sudden, severe headaches may indicate a medical emergency. If you have a sudden, intense headache, seek medical care, especially if you have other symptoms such as:

  • stiff neck
  • high fever
  • difficulty speaking
  • changes in your vision
  • weakness on one side of your body
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Migraine and sleep apnea headaches are two different types of headaches. Part of the clinical definition of sleep apnea headache is that it does not include common migraine symptoms. Here is a comparison of migraine and sleep apnea headaches.

Sleep apnea vs. migraine

Sign/SymptomSleep apnea headacheMigraine
Type of painpressing, more constantpulsating
Durationon average, 30 minutes to 4 hours4 hours to 3 days
Locationboth sides of head (bilateral)one side of head (unilateral)
Other symptomsdaytime sleepinessnausea, sensitivity to light and sound,

Effective treatment for sleep apnea also treats headaches associated with it. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a machine that sends consistent air pressure through an individual’s respiratory tract, which helps prevent the airway from closing during sleep.

Other treatment options include:

Oral devices

Doctors may prescribe oral devices, or you can buy them over the counter (OTC), such as mandibular repositioning mouthpieces and tongue-retaining devices. These devices reposition the tongue helping to keep the breathing passages open during sleep.

Surgical procedures

Several surgical procedures may help treat sleep apnea, including:

How do you get rid of a sleep apnea headache?

OTC pain relievers may treat immediate symptoms of a sleep apnea headache, but to prevent them, consider speaking with your doctor for a CPAP machine or other sleep apnea treatments.

Can lack of oxygen while sleeping cause headaches?

Yes, a lack of oxygen can cause headaches, but there’s no evidence suggesting a link between sleep apnea headaches and low oxygen levels.

Does CPAP stop headaches?

Yes, CPAP can help stop sleep apnea headaches. CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea, and effectively treating your sleep apnea will prevent most sleep apnea headaches.

Sleep apnea headaches happen immediately upon waking, may last up to 4 hours, and usually resolve once your sleep apnea improves.

Not everyone with sleep apnea will have these headaches. For people with sleep apnea, not every morning headache is a sleep apnea headache.