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10 Unexpected Reasons You’re Waking up with a Headache

When you wake up with a headache, your morning won't be pleasant. We've asked health experts on what causes these early-morning headaches and what you can do to wake up with a clear head.

Dehydration from alcohol

Drinking too much at night can certainly wreck your morning. Alcohol can irritate blood vessels, leading to a hangover headache, according to the National Headache Foundation. Stick to moderate drinking, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

person in bed reading their smartphoneEugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Poor sleep patterns

Prioritizing good sleep matters. Both sleep deprivation and getting too much sleep can trigger migraines, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Catch is, people who have migraines are up to 8 times more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, making it even tougher to address the root of the problem. Keep bed and wake times consistent.  These are the 8 types of headaches you can get (and how to get rid of them).

woman sleeping on her back, arms over her headIgor Dutina/Shutterstock

Awkward sleep position

Sleeping in an unusual position can result in muscle strain in the head and neck area, leading to morning headaches, says Nada Milosavljevic, MD, a physician and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Proper support could help ease the likelihood that you’ll wake up in pain. Finding a pillow that feels soft yet supportive for the position that you sleep in.

woman sitting at a window looking down and holding her headVoyagerix/Shutterstock

Mind-racing anxiety

Calm your thoughts, ease the ache. Anna Morrison, a family nurse practitioner in Boca Raton, Florida, says anxiety is a leading cause of pain and ailment in the body. “From tense jaws to even tenser headaches, anxiety, though psychological, can have real, physical effects. If you’re waking up in the morning with headaches, I recommend deep breathing exercises or meditation before bed, as well as a quick ten-minute meditation in the morning. This will help reset your thoughts and keep any daily stresses at bay,” she says. Check out these 11 ways to stop a headache before it starts.

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Consider your blood pressure

Not all high blood pressure causes headaches, and most people never know they have high blood pressure or hypertension until they are seen for other symptoms unrelated to their blood pressure, explains Melva E. Pinn-Bingham, MD, a radiation oncologist at Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital in Ahoskie, NC. “However, a very high or elevated blood pressure known as ‘malignant high blood pressure’ or ‘hypertensive crisis/emergency’ has been linked to causing severe headaches and even vision problems such as blurry or double vision. It is important to seek immediate medical attention for this condition,” she says.

silhouette of a woman in a windowsmolaw/Shutterstock

Coping with untreated depression

Depression can affect you even while you sleep. “One of the more common reasons for such headaches is depression,” says Dr. Pinn-Bingham. “To reduce the likelihood of getting these early morning headaches, it is important to get a good night sleep, follow your physician’s recommendations for treatment and support of depression. I always counsel on the importance of quitting smoking, reducing overall stress in your life and limiting alcohol intake,” she adds.

woman wincing and holding her jawAndrey Popov/Shutterstock

Grinding your teeth

Clenching, grinding, and gnashing your teeth at night can trigger head pain, says Ronald Rosenthal, DDS, a now-retired dentist in Norfolk, VA. “This causes tremendous stress to the chewing muscles. And, when muscles are over-stressed, they can go into a painful spasm,” he explains. Consider a mouth-guard. Your dentist may recommend a custom-fit mouth guard, or you may be able to use an inexpensive over-the-counter device. Bet you didn’t know that there are 13 more surprising things that could trigger headaches.

man on his side sleeping with his mouth openbaranq/Shutterstock

It may be sleep apnea

Experts believe some morning headaches are related to specific activities of sleep. “Sleep apnea—unhealthy breaks in breathing during the night—can cause morning headaches related to high carbon dioxide levels,” explains Jonathan Cabin, MD, director of The Migraine Institute in Beverly Hills, CA. Once a sleep apnea diagnosis is made, he says, medical interventions can help, as can lifestyle changes like weight loss.

woman sitting at a table with a cup of coffee; outdoorsnovak elcic/Shutterstock

Caffeine withdrawal

Surprisingly, caffeine withdrawal can also cause morning headaches, says Dr. Cabin. “Large amounts of caffeine throughout the day and into the evening can cause caffeine-withdrawal headaches in the early morning. Cutting down on caffeine consumption, especially later in the day, can help with these types of headaches,” he says. Then, follow these 32 everyday habits that can reduce your risk of headaches.

Doctor discussing a diagnosis with a male patientuzhursky/Shutterstock

Seek medical attention for severe headaches

Headaches that actually wake people from sleep in the middle of the night can be a sign of more serious, underlying disease, says Dr. Cabin. “If you find you are being woken up by headaches at unusual times, it is important to be checked by your doctor,” he advises. “And any extreme headache—especially with neurological changes like confusion or muscle weakness—could be a sign of a serious or even life-threatening condition and requires emergency medical attention,” he adds. Make sure you know the 16 signs your headache could be something way worse.

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Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on October 15, 2019