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Sleep Disorders and Headaches

Is it the headaches that cause sleep disruptions, or are they simply a symptom of these disorders? The truth is somewhere in the middle, as our bodies are incredibly complex, and it seems that there isn’t an easy answer to this question. Read on to find out more.

Sleep is one of the most critical aspects of our lives, and health professionals are urging people to pay more attention to it. Everybody knows how important diet and exercise are for our health, and it seems that a proper rest deserves an equal spot among these two, as one of the essential factors for a long and happy life.

With people today leading more stressful lives, it is no wonder that there is an increasing number of sleep disorders and headaches. It seems that these events are somehow connected, as it is not rare that they appear at the same time. Many insomnia patients often experience migraines that additionally make it harder to fall asleep. That poses an important question that looks like the famous “chicken and egg” problem. Is it the headaches that cause sleep disruptions, or are they simply a symptom of these disorders? The truth is somewhere in the middle, as our bodies are incredibly complex, and it seems that there isn’t an easy answer to this question.

One thing is sure, headaches are widespread, and they affect more than 50% of the population on any given year. Everybody has experienced it at some point in their lives, but those unfortunate ones have to deal with it a lot more often than the rest of the population. It appears that around 3% of people have chronic headache, meaning that they experience it for more than 15 days each month. That can be truly disabling, especially when you take into consideration that most of the times, doctors don’t know what is causing them. 

There are many available medications for potential treatment, and the effectiveness of each one depends on the individual. Some people find certain drugs to be miracle cures, while others regard them as not helpful at all. If you are experiencing headaches regularly, and they seem to affect your everyday life, you should speak to your medical care provider. They can do closer examinations to try and determine what is causing them and propose the right treatment.

In some cases, simple lifestyle changes can go a long way, and they can be extremely helpful in eliminating or lessening these painful events. Let’s take a closer look into the connection between adequate rest, sleep disorders, and headaches, and see what we can do to prevent them from happening.

Types of Headaches

There are many types of headaches, and health professionals recognize more than 150  different ones. They are divided into two main categories, primary ones that are the condition itself and are not caused by some other event, and the secondary ones that can occur due to some other disorder, head trauma, or substance abuse.

Primary Headaches:

Secondary headaches:

Sleep and Headache – The Connection

Sleep is essential for proper functioning, and lack of sleep can lead to numerous health conditions, impaired memory, inability to focus, poor work performance, and more. The internal clock in our brain is responsible for deciding when to rest and when we should be active. It is all part of circadian rhythms, which are cyclical changes that we go through every day. Our brain adjusts this clock by perceiving external stimuli like light and temperature. It then releases different neurotransmitters and hormones like melatonin, that tell the rest of the body to go to sleep.

It is clear by now that there is some connection between sleep and headaches. For instance, migraines usually appear between 4 am and 9 am, which might suggest a mechanism that correlates with sleep or circadian rhythm or both. Sleep deprivation, as well as sleeping too much, are among the most common triggers of these events. Also, shift work and jet lag can be common triggers, which suggest the influence of both circadian systems and sleep. 

Cluster and hypnic headaches appear almost exclusively during the night slumber, which additionally strengthens the idea of this close relationship. Migraines and insomnia usually appear together, and they are more likely to affect people who have suffered mild head injuries, as a part of post-concussion syndrome. 

Morning headaches usually go hand in hand with other symptoms like daytime sleepiness, and they are often a clear sign of an underlying sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea. Also, people with narcolepsy are more prone to migraines than the rest of the general population, and so are the individuals with restless legs syndrome. Night terrors and sleepwalking are somewhat more common in migraine sufferers, especially children. 

The balance between sleep and wakefulness is essential for keeping our bodies in optimal state and maintaining homeostasis. That may explain such a close relationship between headaches and sleep. Some researches suggested that the migraines are our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. When you are not getting enough sleep, and you are faced with a sharp pain that disables you from doing anything, it might force you to slow down and catch up on your rest. Additionally, when you sleep in too much, migraines can keep you up at night, preventing you from falling asleep, which could lead to the restoration of balance between rest and activity.

Common Sleep Disorders

Insomnia is the most common sleep problem for people suffering from migraines. It refers to difficulty falling (sleep onset) and staying asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia). People usually wake up in the morning with a headache and not feeling refreshed. That leads to daytime fatigue, poor attention, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, and impaired overall functioning. Sometimes a nap can help contain a daytime migraine, but that can later lead to difficulties falling asleep, so it’s a two-edged sword. If you suspect that you have insomnia, you should pay a visit to your medical provider. They can run a series of tests to determine the reasons for your sleep disruptions, and with the right treatment, your migraines should disappear as well.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where something is blocking the upper airway and preventing regular ventilation. The most apparent symptom of this disorder is snoring, which occurs when the air is running over a relaxed tissue that then vibrates and produces that familiar sound. Sleep apnea contributes to disrupted sleep patterns as people often wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. Sleep fragmentation leads to waking up with the morning headache, and people usually feel sluggish and not at all well-rested. Luckily, this condition is successfully treated with positive air pressure therapy, and all the symptoms, including migraines, should improve with regular use of prescribed treatment.

Teeth grinding can lead to waking up with a headache and sore jaw. If it is not treated, it can lead to a temporomandibular disorder, and chronic teeth grinding, which is also known as bruxism. Most common causes of this condition are excessive stress and poor sleep, and simple lifestyle adjustments, and the use of a mouthguard can improve symptoms and prevent migraines.

Improving Sleep Hygiene

If your symptoms are persistent and are preventing you from doing your daily activities, you should visit your doctor. They can carefully examine you and determine the cause of your problems, and advise further treatment accordingly. However, there are some things you can do on your own to improve many aspects of your life, including sleep quality, productivity, and fewer headaches. 

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