Waking up with a headache: why does this happen so often?
September 28, 2016 8:54 PM   Subscribe

I get more than my share of headaches; I'm kind of prone to them. I get headaches maybe two or three times a week on average, and I've identified various headache triggers. And there is one clear tendency in my headaches: I'm much more likely to get them in the early morning (and wake up with them) than I am to get one at any other time of day. Why could this be?

Most of my headaches are mild, and the ones that I wake up with are short-lived; they usually dissipate within 15 to 90 minutes of waking up. It's hard to say when they start, since I'm asleep when they do, but based on the times that I have woken up during the night, the headaches seem to come in the hour or two before I wake up.

An obvious suspect is nighttime jaw-clenching/teeth-grinding. And the fact is that I do a lot of jaw-clenching and teeth-grinding when I sleep; I wear a mouthguard when I sleep because of it. But that is a most a co-culprit. Why do I think so? Because of the aforementioned headache triggers that I mentioned. Coming down with a cold or the flu is one. Eating too much of a salty snack is another. Being relatively dehydrated (and a related one: having a sweaty workout, and not obsessively replenishing my fluids enough afterword. By the way, I hydrate way more than the average person in general). Being caffeine-deprived. Eating certain foods that for some reason are problematic for me. All of these things greatly increase my chances of getting a headache, and I'm much more likely to get that headache in the early morning than at any other time, regardless of the timing of the headache-trigger activity.

I'm not going to give any other details about my health because I suspect that this is a universal tendency, not unique to me. That is, that there is something intrinsic to the human body (not just mine) that makes people in general more likely to get a headache in the early morning. Of course, most people get few headaches, so they wouldn't pick up on the tendency like I would. And I could be wrong. But that's why I'm here asking this: to understand my headaches better and try to find ways to get them less.
posted by Get-Go to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How is your pillow? If my head is at a weird angle I can wakes up with a headache.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:57 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Early morning headaches describe my sinus headaches and explain why they dissipate after 15 minutes plus.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:15 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

As you note, dehydration and caffeine withdrawal are both very common and powerful headache triggers. They are also both very likely to be present immediately upon waking, since you haven't been able to drink anything, caffeinated or otherwise while you were sleeping.
posted by firechicago at 9:17 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

All of my non-sickness-related early morning headaches seem to be due to dehydration (even though I too hydrate well during the day). I keep a 1L nalgene by my bed and when I wake up I chug from it, then flop back down onto my pillow going "ugggghhh" and feeling sorry for myself for about 5-10 minutes, and then I'm good to go.
posted by btfreek at 9:28 PM on September 28, 2016

Low blood sugar or high blood pressure can cause headaches on waking
posted by TestamentToGrace at 9:42 PM on September 28, 2016

If you have long hair, maybe change how you style it for sleep. I used to get headaches if I wore a high ponytail for too long.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:50 PM on September 28, 2016

Headaches in the morning can be a classic symptom of sleep apnea. Consider that all your headaches may not have common cause.
posted by smoke at 10:17 PM on September 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

This is purely based on my own experience and guesses, not any medical knowledge, but my guess is dehydration is a significant factor, and I wonder if failing to breathe correctly while sleeping might also have an impact (I know that I snore). The headaches-upon-waking seem to be more common for me when I sleep for an especially long time, which is consistent with both of these theories.
posted by likedoomsday at 10:18 PM on September 28, 2016

I do not want to scare you, but I'm gonna say something kinda scary, because it's worth knowing.

Frequent headaches that are present as soon as you wake up and dissipate once you get out of bed and start to go about your day are a pretty classic brain tumor symptom. OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE LOTS OF OTHER POSSIBLE CAUSES TOO - sinus is very common, for one. But it may be worth mentioning to your doctor, especially if they become more frequent or seem to be getting more intense.
posted by waffleriot at 10:34 PM on September 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

No one is answering your question, which is: is something intrinsic to the human body (not just mine) that makes people in general more likely to get a headache in the early morning?

And the answer is NO, there is no one thing that makes headaches happen in the morning or to any given person that could be said is universal enough to have one good piece of advice solicited over the internet that is a catch-all for eliminating headaches. but.....

Morning is a time of transition. You entire body goes from one state (sleep) into another state (wakefulness). Every system, circulatory, respiratory, endocrine, GI, changes during this transition.
Your brain, as it becomes active, demands more blood, blood which has pooled in your trunk while you've been prone.
Your muscles, as they begin to move, require blood as well. they are stiff from inactivity (or tired from hyperactivity if you've been clenching them)
Likely you are dehydrated, or hungry, or have gone a long time without caffeine or other meds.

Any or all of these factors can cause headaches, and there are a dozen more things i could list.
For that matter there are different kinds of headaches, and those have different causes as well.

My best advice is know your body. figure out what combination of normal things, like proper hydration, a good pillow, consistent bedtime, etc. give you good sleep and reduce your headaches. stick to those things. set yourself up for success. If you still suffer you might, then, want to see a sleep specialist, or talk to a physician about other underlying causes.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:50 PM on September 28, 2016

Seconding high blood pressure. Also, maybe dry eyes.
posted by fourpotatoes at 2:03 AM on September 29, 2016

A new pillow fixed months of morning headaches for me. I recently switched to a down pillow for back sleepers and have been morning headache free for weeks now.
posted by cecic at 5:13 AM on September 29, 2016

Low blood sugar and/or dehydration. I find a nice bug glass of fruit juice in the morning before I do anything else can really help. Also I have a history of sinus issues so shower in the morning so the stream can do its thing.
posted by wwax at 6:29 AM on September 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a grinder too so I sympathize (I am terrible about wearing my night guard and I woke up with a headache today). Have you ever been to a chiropractor? A lot of the triggers you're describing relate to constriction - dehydration, lack of caffeine, all are vessel constriction and blood-supply related as OHenry said above.

One additional constricting cause/factor could be literal crimping of your blood supply caused by spinal misalignment. A lot of people are suspicious of chiropractic medicine (I go back and forth) but adjustments helped me greatly at certain times in my life with headache symptoms and other miseries. If you're finding that the headaches correlate to times when you are otherwise stressed out in your life, it might be a further indicator (stress-related muscle tension is often what leads to misalignment) that your spine is out of whack and that it's something physical/skeletal that is limiting your blood supply. A good old-fashioned back cracking can open up the pathways again. Always found yoga helpful too, not just for the mindfulness piece but for the physical alignment and flexibility part.

I realize I sound like a homeopath/hippie right now but I'm totally not. If there were some kind of laser robot technology I was aware of to relieve your symptoms I would be touting that, I promise. Good luck.
posted by clownschool at 6:30 AM on September 29, 2016

Do you wake up to an alarm, or naturally? Do you try to force yourself to sleep longer/less than you might naturally want to?

Waking up to an alarm sometimes gives me headaches, so I try to avoid it and allow myself to wake up naturally. Trying to force myself to sleep in almost always gives me headaches that naturally get better with time.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 6:35 AM on September 29, 2016

Dehydration and caffeine withdrawal both happen to me. I sometimes track how much I'm drinking (of both water and coffee) and my morning headaches and see where there is some correlation, and if so, increase water/cut back coffee, etc.
posted by sutel at 9:18 AM on September 29, 2016

After my recent bout of headaches in the morning, my husband suspected cat fur so he stripped the bed and washed everything, including the top blankets which we kept forgetting about, and the cats' beds, and I picked up the habit again of using Flonase before I went to bed, and taking an Allegra at night. It worked. We're not 100% if it's the cats or seasonal allergies, but just "allergies" appears to be the answer.

I also wake up with them from dehydration, caffeine deprivation, and having a pillow that's too fat or too flat.
posted by telophase at 12:07 PM on September 29, 2016

I agree with waffleriot that it's worth checking with a doctor on this. I also get morning headaches. For me, I'm pretty sure now it's from teeth-grinding. But many years ago, before I was even aware I ground my teeth in my sleep, I saw a neurologist about my headaches. I was not even concerned about the morning aspect; it was just the frequency that worried me. But as soon as she heard that these were morning headaches, she perked up and seemed concerned -- enough to arrange for me to get a head CT. The CT showed nothing to worry about, but I don't regret getting it, just to be sure.

I never did find out why she was so concerned. I was young at the time (in my 20s) and not inclined to ask questions of doctors the way I am now (in my 60s). And this was pre-internet, so I couldn't just google it. But I imagine that what waffleriot says is accurate.

Can't hurt to ask a doctor, right?
posted by merejane at 8:14 AM on September 30, 2016

I had morning headaches for years, they would typically start, it seems, something in the week hours of the morning and would be full blown by the time I got up. I started talking about this to other people and discovered it was pretty common. And I did a lot of reading trying to figure out. One reason the headache may start then is that during the night is when the body has it's lowest amount of naturally-occurring opioids, and so any pain you may have is not being suppressed as well, and hence when you get up and start moving around, it tends to get better.

Do you drink? Try stopping completely. I was drinking 2 glasses of wine at dinner and once I quit, voila, the headaches completely disappeared, and they don't seem to come back if I have a couple of glasses every once in a while. It seems to be the regular consumption that was causing some kind of low-grade inflammation. If you do find drinking is a trigger, take a couple of ibuprofen before bed to decrease the inflammation.

Hydration. You mentioned that you drink more water than the average person, do track it and make sure that is true, there are lots of apps for that. And this is an interesting study that says that people who suffer from headaches need to drink much more than recommended amounts.
posted by nanook at 12:18 PM on September 30, 2016

This is 20+ years old advice, but I was told that if you sleep with your head lower than the rest of your body (downhill), it can cause headaches cause all the blood drains down and pools in your brain. Probably not an issue in most modern day houses/beds, but...

Also, yeah, allergies. If you are the least bit prone, cleaning all the bedding, under the bed, the fans, the vents, etc, weekly or more can make a huge difference.
posted by Jacen at 6:39 PM on September 30, 2016

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