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Why Do Some People Get Headaches in the Morning?

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Nov 11, 2020

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Image Credit: Getty

Waking up with a pounding headache isn’t the most ideal situation. But early morning headaches are common, affecting 1 in 13 people. It’s too early for a tension headache, so what gives?

Morning headache causes could include dehydration, sleep disorders, certain substances, and even the way you sprawl while sleeping.

Not getting enough water is a common reason behind a raging morning headache. When one is dehydrated, brain tissue loses water, causing the brain to shrink away from the skull. This fires up the brain’s pain receptors, causing a headache. One reason for this dehydration could be not getting enough water during the day. Another could be drinking lots of alcohol the night before. Alcohol suppresses the hormone responsible for water retention, leading to dehydration.

Additionally, alcohol causes the brain’s blood vessels to expand — a process linked to migraines. When alcohol consumption stops — i.e. at night, when someone is sleeping — blood vessels constrict again, which contributes to a hangover headache. (Apart from that, alcohol also inhibits restful (REM) sleep and increases histamine hormone levels, both of which contribute to headaches.)

Other substances have a similar effect on blood vessels and headaches. Caffeine actually causes the reverse, however — it leads blood vessels to constrict, a state they get used to. Headaches occur during ‘caffeine withdrawal‘ — when blood vessels expand again (again, a process associated with migraines). People who drink multiple cups of caffeinated beverages, especially in the morning, may wake up with a headache because they didn’t consume any caffeine at night and the blood vessels in their brains are expanding. And like alcohol, caffeine also affects the brain’s pain receptors in a way that makes people who consume it regularly more prone to headaches.

Similarly, individuals with chronic migraine issues are also likely to have morning headaches because pain medication from the night before wears off while they are asleep. Or, a migraine starts while they are asleep, and they miss the window during which their prescription migraine medication is effective.


Related on The Swaddle:

All the Types of Headaches and What Causes Them


A variety of sleep disturbances also lead to fatigue and system disruptions that cause headaches. People who either sleep very little or have insomnia are likely to wake up with headaches. This is because a lack of sleep disrupts the body’s pain signaling system, heightening sensitivity, and thus, causing a reduction in the body’s pain threshold. Scientists can’t yet explain why these phenomenons occur together, but the link is clear.

Apart from lack of sleep, unconscious sleep disturbances also may lead to morning headaches. Those who sleep in positions that don’t support their neck or spine are likely to strain their neck muscles, which can cause a morning headache. Teeth grinding while sleeping can lead to a dull headache in the morning, due to the constant clenching of the jaw. And sleep apnea (snoring) also leads to morning headaches, as the blocked airways characteristic of the disorder do not allow enough oxygen to reach the brain.

There are more serious reasons why an individual can wake up with a headache, including serious brain disorders. It is best to visit a doctor immediately if the headache worsens, occurs after a recent head injury, does not go away post taking pain medication, or comes with symptoms like sensitivity, weakness, jaw pain, vision loss, fever, speech and memory difficulties, tender scalp and fever.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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