After a long day of work or classes, we all look forward to enjoying a calm evening, complete with curling up on the couch with a good book, some episodes on Netflix, or a glass of wine (or all of the above). That means any kind of distraction from winding down is an inconvenience, and a nighttime headache is one of the most unwelcome kinds. The last thing you want to deal with before going to bed is a throbbing head. Ahead are some of the most common causes of nighttime headaches, as well as some ways to help treat or prevent them.
What Causes Nighttime Headaches?
Nighttime headaches can be caused by a variety of factors, both physical and environmental.
- Tension headaches: You've likely had at least one tension headache in your life, as it is the most common form of headaches, although its exact causes aren't clear. "Tension headaches are associated with stress and muscle tension and often are felt like a band-like pain in the back of the head," Alex Dimitriu, MD, a double board-certified physician in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine, told POPSUGAR.
- Migraine headaches: If you've had a migraine, you know that they're more intense than a regular headache. Migraines can be triggered by a number of factors, including hormonal changes, stress, sensory stimuli, sleep changes, and drinks (e.g. caffeine or alcohol). "Migraine headaches can occur by day or night and may have associated auras, as well as nausea or vomiting," Dr. Dimitriu said. Auras are visual or other disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots, that happen before or during the headache.
- Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches, like their name suggests, happen in cluster periods, where headaches occur every day (or several times a day) for a period of weeks or even months. They often occur at night, and aren't typically associated with triggers. "Cluster headaches are excruciatingly painful, and often behind one eye," Dr. Dimitriu explained.
- Sleep apnea: Both Dr. Dimitriu and Kiran F Rajneesh, MD, MS, director of the neurological pain division and assistant professor in the department of neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, cited sleep apnea as a cause of nighttime headaches. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where breathing temporarily pauses during the night. This can lead to headaches because "your airway collapses on itself during deep sleep, leading to decreased oxygen supply to the brain," Dr. Rajneesh told POPSUGAR.
- Environmental factors: Some other culprits behind headaches could be environmental and more within your control. "Low humidity in your home, poor neck posture during sleep from overused pillows, poor body posture from mattresses with poor support, and poor sleep habits or discipline" could all cause sleep disruption and headaches, Dr. Rajneesh explained.
- Strokes: "Very rarely, a stroke may also present as a severe nighttime headache," Dr. Dimitriu said. In those instances, there is usually also some associated loss of function in movement or speech, and you should seek immediate medical attention.
What Can I Do to Treat or Prevent Nighttime Headaches?
Unfortunately, you can't always just sleep off a nighttime headache. If the pain is too much, over-the-counter pain medicine (like ibuprofen or acetaminophen) may help, but Dr. Dimitriu said you shouldn't make it a recurring habit. It's also important to try to manage your stress levels, and identify and address any underlying causes.
Where possible, you can also optimize your environment to help prevent headaches. Dr. Rajneesh suggests the following:
- Avoid stimulants like coffee and tea late at night.
- Ensure your pillows can support your neck while sleeping.
- Check that your mattress properly supports your body and spine.
- Maintain good sleep habits, like going to bed and waking up at a regular time.
- Keep your room at a comfortable temperature when you sleep, and avoid low or high humidity.
- If you or a loved one regularly snores, you may want to talk to a doctor about sleep apnea.
Finally, if you experience constant nighttime headaches or regularly wake up with a headache, both doctors recommend discussing your symptoms with a physician, who can help identify what's causing your headaches. And if your nighttime headaches are associated with other symptoms such as fever, chills, night sweats, chest pain, shortness of breath, or unintentional weight loss, Dr. Rajneesh said you should seek immediate medical attention.