You slept eight luxurious hours last night (or, you know, at least six). But as soon as you sat up in bed this morning, you noticed it. The throbbing temples. The pounding at the base of your skull. The piercing pain behind your eyes. Despite getting a decent night’s sleep, you have a terrible headache.
And you aren’t alone. One in 13 people regularly get headaches in the morning, according to a report in the Archives of Internal Medicine. What gives? Is there a solution? Well, you could pop a painkiller, chug a cup of coffee and hope for the best. But if you’ve been having these headaches for a while, the best solution is to determine the root cause and to figure out a treatment solution with your doctor.
Here’s the 411 about why you’re waking up with headaches and how to survive them. (Plus, what to do if you wake up early and still desperately need some sleep.)
What does a morning headache feel like?
A morning headache can feel like any other common headache—the only difference is that you experience it when you wake up, or soon after you get up in the morning. It might feel like a squeezing sensation around your forehead (in which case, it’s probably a tension headache), an intense pain around one eye (aka a cluster headache) or a throbbing pain that’s more severe on one side of the head (that’s our arch nemesis, the migraine). First, narrow down the cause: keep a headache journal. We know, you’re busy. But skip your morning pages for a few weeks, and instead, jot down one line of observations about how your head is feeling. Your doctor will find this info super helpful, and you might even help you figure out the cause of the headaches on your own.
What could be causing my morning headaches?
1. Sleep apnea. This is one of the most common causes of morning headaches,
Alex Dimitriu, MD, double board-certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, tells us. “This happens because the brain is starved of oxygen during periods of snoring, which leads to headaches.” Sleep apnea can be dangerous and may require a breathing assistance device, like a CPAP machine, so if you snore and frequently get headaches in the morning, get checked out by your doctor.
2. Lack of sleep. We know, your big work project isn’t going to do itself. But if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends recently, your lack of sleep could be causing headaches, Dr. Dimitriu explains. And if you’re pairing sleepless nights with tons of triple lattes, you might be compounding the issue. Cut back on caffeine and sleep at least seven hours a night for several weeks and see if your headaches disappear.
3. Dehydration. Ever wonder why you always wake up with such an awful headache after drinking three or four glasses of wine? (Or beer, margaritas, or really anything with alcohol?) That’s because alcohol contains ethanol, which is dehydrating—and dehydration can cause headaches. Anything that dehydrates you can cause the same type of headache, whether you ate a whole bag of popcorn while watching WandaVision last night, or just forgot to drink an extra glass of water after your afternoon Peleton class. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day, no exceptions. These cute water bottles might help.
4. Depression. In a 2004 study, Maurice M. Ohayon, M.D., D.Sc., Ph.D., of Stanford University School of Medicine found a link between chronic morning headaches and major depressive disorders. So if you’ve been feeling depressed recently and are also noticing headaches when you wake up in the morning, it’s definitely worth mentioning to your doctor.
5. Teeth grinding and clenching. If you’re a grinder or clencher, there’s a chance that you do it in your sleep without even realizing it. All of that jaw movement might be causing jaw tension that turns into a headache by the time you wake up the next morning. Check in with your dentist, who might prescribe jaw exercises or a night guard.
Ugh, I have a headache and it woke me up. How can I get back to sleep?
It’s the ultimate catch-22. Sleeping will make your head feel better, but you can’t get back to sleep with a headache. When you find yourself in this cycle, Dr. Dimitriu recommends meditation. We love the Insight Timer app, which features free guided meditations, including dozens of tracks that are specifically designed to reduce headache pain.
Still can’t sleep? Try visualizing your childhood home. Walk the hallways. Go in and out of each room. Picture the photos hanging on every wall and the details of that Laura Ashley comforter you had for at least a decade. The next thing you know, the birds are chirping, the sun is streaming in and, hallelujah, you just logged a solid six hours of zzz’s. When you’re overthinking sleep, distraction is your best friend.
Or you could try square breathing. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, then hold your breath for a count of four. Exhale through your mouth for a count of four, then pause and hold for a count of four. Repeat until you’ve drifted off into sweet, headache-free slumber.