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Sleep Apnea and Headaches

Apr 02, 2021
· 3 mins read

Headaches, also known as cephalalgia, are one of the most common health complaints affecting 45 million Americans. They account for 3 million visits to the emergency room and 80 million visits to the doctor’s office every year.  Headaches are generally split into 2 categories: Primary and Secondary headaches. These headaches are classified under the diagnostic criteria of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-3) by the International Headache Society. Sleep Apnea is another health ailment that affects 26% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70 years old. We wanted to find out what kind of headaches sleep apnea produces and how they can be treated. 

People who suffer from migraines or tension-type headaches are between 2-8 times more likely to develop sleep disorders than those who do not suffer from migraines. People who suffer from chronic migraines, meaning they have 15 or more headaches per month, suffer from insomnia at twice the rate than those who have less frequent headaches. Some of these headaches can lower the oxygen levels in your blood.  Studies show that 50% of people with OSA or obstructive sleep apnea suffer from headaches and most types of headaches can be put into 3 categories: Cluster headaches, Hypnic headaches, and OSA-related headaches also known as sleep apnea headaches.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are exactly what they sound like, severe headaches that group in one place, which can last for weeks or even months. These headaches can bring on several symptoms like stuffy nose, restlessness, extreme pain behind one eye that can radiate to your face, head, and/or neck, excessive tearing of the eyes, and sweating on the affected side. Even though these headaches can last for months you can go through remission periods of months and sometimes years. Luckily, cluster headaches are not life-threatening and rare. 

Hypnic Headaches

angry alarm clock clipart

Hypnic or “alarm clock” headaches usually do not begin during sleep and they are rare. The most commonly occur to people after the age of 50. Hypnic headaches commonly wake up the person at the same time each night.

OSA-Related Headaches

Obstructive Sleep Apnea-related headaches occur because of a widening of the blood vessels. They can create sleep disturbances, These are usually morning headaches that continuously reoccur, can cause pain on both sides of your head, and tend to go away when you wake up. They happen to chronic snorers with OSA as well.  Obstructive sleep apnea can increase the risk factor of having chronic daily headaches since you continue to lose sleep every night. Loss of sleep can cause inflammation and stress leading to a decrease in oxygen saturation levels in the blood called hypoxemia and an increase in carbon dioxide. This can create hypopneas which can trigger high blood pressure also known as hypertension.  If you suffer from OSA-related headaches you can experience excessive daytime sleepiness. If you use an oral appliance to treat your sleep apnea, you may experience sleep apnea-related headaches due to the constant pressure that may be on your jaw due to the dental device. 

Treatment Options

These headaches can be treated by making positive lifestyle changes such as minimizing your alcohol consumption or not drinking before bedtime, using positive airway pressure such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), oral devices to help correct sleep apnea issues, and lastly surgery to remove tissue blocking your upper airway.  Consider surgery only when all other non-invasive treatments have not worked.

Final Thoughts

There seems to be a link between not getting enough sleep and headaches so committing to having healthy sleep habits is a must. Make sure to rule out any underlying conditions that may be causing headaches with your sleep specialist or healthcare provider and discuss any other symptoms you have. Be sure to always attempt to get a good night's rest and make healthy lifestyle choices.

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