Waking Up With A Headache: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi holds an academic position at Northumbria University. After completing her Ph.D. at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), she joined the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow to research how sleep and circadian rhythmicity influence our cognitive functioning.

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By Sharon Brandwein Certified Sleep Coach

Last Updated On January 17th, 2024
Waking Up With A Headache: Causes, Treatments, and Prevention

Key Takeaways

  • Causes of Headaches: Morning headaches can have various causes, ranging from common issues like migraines and sleep apnea to more complex conditions such as hypnic headaches, a rare disorder that occurs exclusively during sleep. Common causes include sleep apnea, stress, anxiety, depression, medication side effects, bruxism (teeth grinding during sleep), poor sleep quality or insomnia, and oversleeping.
  • Morning Headaches as a Symptom: Morning headaches can be a symptom of various underlying health conditions, and it’s essential to pay attention to their frequency, severity, and associated symptoms. If you frequently wake up with headaches or experience other concerning symptoms like fever, stiff neck, or persistent pain, talk to your doctor.
  • Stopping Morning Headaches: To prevent morning headaches, consider lifestyle changes such as avoiding caffeine in the evening, staying hydrated, maintaining good sleep hygiene, addressing sleep disorders, using supportive pillows and mattresses, and consulting a doctor if headaches persist or have concerning symptoms.

There are many potential causes of morning headaches, from common issues like migraines to more complicated issues such as hypnic headaches, which is a rare disorder of which not much is currently known about.

“Hypnic headache syndrome is a rare, recurrent, headache disorder that occurs exclusively during sleep,” explains Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “These headache attacks occur mostly during night-time sleep but may also occur during daytime nap.”

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“While there have been some reported associations between arousals during sleep and headaches during slow-wave-sleep or REM sleep, the mechanisms underlying hypnic headaches remain unclear.”

Waking up in the morning with a headache is a common problem affecting approximately one out of 13 Americans. Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  Women are more commonly affected than men, and it is most common in people aged 45-64.

While waking up with a headache can be a simple problem like dehydration, Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source  it may also be a symptom of a more serious health condition that needs attention.

Often, you can treat morning headaches with simple remedies and lifestyle changes. Here are some top causes of morning headaches and what you can do to help prevent them in the future.

Why Might I Wake Up with Early Morning Headaches?

People suffering from early morning headaches will often wake up in pain early in the AM, such as four or five in the morning, or they will wake up at their regular time in pain. Some of the more common headaches people wake up with are migraines and headaches from sleep apnea.

Research shows that 20% of people with sleep apnea wake up with headaches, and 12% of Americans suffer from migraines. In addition, a whopping prevalence of 29% of people Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source who have undergone polysomnography reported morning headaches.

Several sleep disorders can lead to waking up with a headache. Research shows that insomnia and overall poor sleep quality issues lead to more frequent and more painful morning headaches.

Different Types of Headaches

There are roughly 150 types of headaches which are divided into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Other.

Primary Headaches

A primary headache, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source or primary headache disorder, is not caused by any other condition. A primary headache is a condition in itself. Examples of primary headaches include:

  • Tension-type headaches: Tension headaches feels like a tight band wrapped around your head
  • Migraine: A severe throbbing pain, generally felt on one side of the head
  • Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias: A TAC is a type of headache that typically presents itself on one side of the head with physical symptoms such as a droopy eye, redness or eye-watering on the side with the pain.
  • Other naturally occurring headaches: Such headaches can be brought on by coughing, sneezing, pressure, or other natural occurrences.

Secondary Headaches

A secondary headache is caused by another issue, such as a head or nerve injury. However, a secondary headache can also be caused by using or withdrawing a substance like caffeine or medication. Or a condition such as sinusitis, Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source  diving conditions, or hypothyroidism. Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source  Even some psychiatric disorders can cause secondary headaches.

Other Headaches

Other headaches are caused by cranial disorders such as cerebral palsy, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source lesions, or nerve issues.

Common Causes of Morning Headaches

Sleep Apnea and Snoring

People with obstructive or central sleep apnea suffer from pauses in breathing while they sleep. It is estimated that one in 15 people have some form of sleep apnea, many undiagnosed.

Almost one-third of Americans with sleep apnea suffer from morning headaches. While the cause of headaches from sleep apnea is not known, a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine shows results in helping reduce headaches.

Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

People suffering from anxiety, depression, and stress have more morning headaches than the general population. Thoughts of worry, hopelessness and fear cause sleep disruptions and even dreams that can reduce restful sleep. This lack of rest can result in headaches.

There is substantial research showing that mood disorders and migraines Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source often have a relationship. Knowing this, suffering from depression or anxiety will increase the likelihood of waking up with a headache. In addition, mental health conditions lead to insomnia, which can also cause headaches in the morning.

In addition, depression and anxiety can result from lack of sleep or another medical condition. For example, people who suffer from migraines Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from depression and five times more likely to have an anxiety disorder.

There’s an increasingly complex relationship between mental wellness and headaches. For some, the headaches appear to cause stress and anxiety. For others, it is the opposite.

If you feel you may have a mental health condition affecting your sleep, speak to your doctor about managing your condition. Doing so can likely help reduce waking up with a headache.


Several medications can interrupt sleep patterns resulting in daytime sleepiness from disrupted sleep and waking up with a headache. Also, some drugs can reduce headaches can also disrupt sleep patterns.

According to studies, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source aspirin, acetaminophen, and other NSAIDs have been shown to disrupt sleep patterns more than a placebo. In addition, some beta-blockers can contribute to disruptive dreams causing sleeplessness. Other medications such as benzodiazepines to treat common sleep disorders have been shown to increase waking up with a headache.


People who clench or grind their teeth during sleep, also known as sleep bruxism, may wake up with a headache. Not only does bruxism affect oral health while sleeping, causing tooth damage and muscle pain. It can also lead to headaches from constant tension during the night.

There are several causes of bruxism, including jaw structure, stress, and drinking coffee before bed. If you feel you may have bruxism, consult a dentist to help determine if you have it.

If you have bruxism, several treatments to help you stop grinding teeth at night include a mouth guard, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication. In some cases, people who suffer from Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder can lead to bruxism, or bruxism can lead to further TMJ issues.

Treating sleep apnea can also help with bruxism, due to the link between teeth grinding and sleep apnea.

Poor Sleep/Insomnia

Sleep deprivation is a cause of a significant amount of waking up with a headache. Whether the reason is insomnia, stimulants, or even poor sleep position causing discomfort to the spine or muscles. Even low-quality pillows can cause sleep disturbances by providing too little head and neck support.

People with poor sleep habits have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and often report having an insatiable sleep routine.

Side Effects of Medication

Some depression and anxiety drugs, and even insomnia medications such as Zyprexa, Xanax, Codeine, and other medications such as nitrates for heart trouble, birth control pills, and several other legal drugs can cause headaches.


Migraines are one of the most common causes of waking up with headaches. People who have migraines when waking up typically report poor sleep. In fact, only 32% of adolescents Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  waking up with migraines say they felt well-rested in the morning.

Strained Muscles

Strained muscles in the neck can lead to waking up with a headache. People who wake up with strained muscles should evaluate their mattresses and pillows to see if they can help ease the stress on the neck while sleeping. If you do not have a mattress for neck pain, you may want to consider getting one.

Pillows are made to help support your neck while sleeping to ensure a better sleeping position for your spine and neck. A too-soft pillow may not properly support your neck and spine, so you may need to look for a firm pillow to stop morning headaches.

Research suggests that contoured pillows with higher sides and a lower-middle region can help increase sleep quality and limit neck strain. Investing in a pillow for neck pain is worth it to get a good night’s sleep.

Getting Too Much Sleep

Oversleeping, especially regularly or even spending too much time in bed while awake, can cause waking up in the morning with a headache. In addition, sleeping too much can indicate depression, medication use, or other medical condition.

The simple solution to avoiding this type of headache is to not use your bed unless you are sleeping and going into a natural sleep cycle by going to bed and waking up at regular times as often as possible.


Concussions can disrupt the brain’s normal functions, including its regulation of pain and sensation. While some people may experience immediate symptoms after a head injury, others might not notice them until they wake up the following morning. This is why it’s important to get medical attention immediately after a head injury.

If you suspect that your morning headache is related to a previous head injury or concussion, talk to your doctor. They can tell you how to safely sleep with a concussion and what symptoms to watch out for, including intense or worsening headaches.

Other Possible Conditions

The number of conditions that can cause morning headaches is extensive. Above is a list of some of the more common problems associated with waking up with a headache. Several other possible causes are ranging from very serious like stroke or a brain tumor to more manageable issues such as high blood pressure and low blood sugar.

How Can I Stop Waking Up With a Headache?

There are many ways you can help reduce your chances of waking up with a headache, including:

  • Avoiding caffeine later in the day and reducing intake to reduce caffeine withdrawal
  • Drink plenty of water before bed to eliminate dehydration-related headaches.
  • Rest well and avoid sleep deprivation, a primary cause of waking up with a headache. Look at the best pillows and mattresses for good sleep.
  • Avoid common migraine triggers such as stress and anxiety. Get plenty of exercise for sleep and take steps to reduce your migraine episodes.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is it normal for a headache to wake you up?

Many people only wake up with a headache in the morning, as opposed to being jolted out of sleep by a headache. However, hypnic headaches are also known as ‘alarm-clock headaches’ for the way they wake a sleeping person. Sleepers who experience hypnic headaches usually experience them several times a week.

How can I stop waking up with a headache?

It’s important to identify what the likely source of your morning headache is before you can take steps to address it. For example, if you experience a morning headache with a sore or stiff neck, you may need to replace your pillow. This is an easy fix, while other causes such as sleep apnea, allergies, bruxism, etc. will require you to speak with your doctor.

Still, as morning headaches are often linked to poor sleep, one of the best ways to prevent them is to improve your sleep hygiene and make sure you’re getting enough hours of rest.

Should I worry if I wake up with a headache?

Waking up once with a headache is likely to be a minor issue, such as a poor night’s sleep or not drinking enough water before bed. However, if you frequently find yourself waking up with a headache and have eliminated potential causes such as an unsupportive pillow and mattress, then it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor. They can help diagnose any medical issues behind your headaches.

Before your visit, keep a sleep diary tracking not just mornings when you wake up with a headache, but other potential symptoms and a rough idea of your sleep and wake times.

Can dehydration cause morning headaches?

Yes, it’s possible to wake up with a headache from consuming too little water, just as you can develop a headache during the day from dehydration. Dehydration headaches typically present as pain throughout the head or pain concentrated in the front or back.  Some individuals are more likely to develop headaches when dehydrated than others, but it’s important for everyone to make sure they are drinking enough water.

Can allergies cause headaches when I wake up?

Yes, morning headaches can be linked to allergen exposure, such as dust mites in the bedroom. A sinus-related headache often includes a stuffy nose, pressure around the eyes, cheeks and forehead with a throbbing sensation. The pain you feel may also worsen if you bend forward or lie down, and you may also feel like you’ve got a cold.

Naturally, you want to avoid allergy triggers by keeping your bedroom clean, and maybe even try an air purifier for its benefits. You can also keep your sinuses in good condition by drinking enough water and taking over-the-counter medication to prevent congestion.

Should I See a Doctor for Morning Headaches?

If you are waking up with headaches in the morning and taking steps to reduce morning headaches, but they persist, you should consult a doctor. If this is a regular occurrence, you may have chronic migraines. If this is the case, you will want to speak to your doctor as soon as possible.

In addition, if your headaches began after a head injury or have other symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, or other morning symptoms, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. You may want to do a sleep study or other test to help determine the cause and help you sleep better and wake up happier.

About the author

Sharon Brandwein is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and freelance writer with a focus on beauty, lifestyle, and sleep content. Her work has been featured on ABC News, USA Today, and Forbes, demonstrating her ability to deliver engaging and informative articles. When she's not writing, Sharon enjoys curating a wardrobe for her puppy, showcasing her eye for style and detail.

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