If you’re waking up with pounding headaches, you’re not alone: Research shows that morning headaches affect one in 13 people. For many of those sufferers, their wake-up head pain is a migraine—in fact, the morning is the most common time to suffer from one of these debilitating headaches.
In this article, I’ll talk about migraines and non-migraine headaches, so you can determine if your morning headaches are one or the other.
I’ll also talk about some of the most common causes of morning headaches, what you can do to prevent them, and when to see a doctor about morning headaches.
What is a Migraine?
A migraine is actually a neurological condition that can cause several symptoms. Most notably, migraines bring on severe pain that usually affects one side of the head and can extend to the neck.
There are two types of migraine diagnosis: episodic migraine (EM) and chronic migraine (CM).
Episodic migraine is when a person has up to 14 headaches per month, while chronic migraine is where a person has 15 or more headaches per month. Migraine headaches often run in families and can affect people of any age.
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with migraine than men.
Migraines usually cause severe pain on one side of the head—though it’s possible for migraine pain to occur on both sides or shift between sides. When people describe migraine pain, they usually describe it as pulsating, throbbing, or pounding. It can also feel like a severe, steady ache.
Migraine symptoms can begin one or two days before the actual headache begins.
This is the prodrome stage.
- Food cravings
- Fatigue or low energy
- Neck stiffness
After the prodrome stage, some people may experience a neurological disturbance called an aura.
Auras usually last for less than an hour, but last for days in rare cases.
Aura symptoms include:
- Difficulty speaking
- Seeing shapes, light flashes, or bright spots
- Temporary loss of vision
- Feeling a prickling or tingling sensation in your face, arms, or legs
Not everyone with migraine will experience prodrome or aura symptoms. Each case of migraine is unique.
After the potential prodrome and aura stages, a person may experience the following symptoms through the duration of a migraine attack:
How to Tell If It’s a Migraine or Headache
Unlike cluster headaches, sinus headaches, or other types of common headaches, migraines have much more severe symptoms.
Consult the chart below to determine whether you’re likely experiencing a migraine or a headache.
|Migraine Symptoms||Headache Symptoms|
|Intense, pulsing, or throbbing sensations||Mild, dull pressure|
|Pain typically felt on one side of the head||Pain typically felt throughout the forehead|
|Headache accompanied by other symptoms, like nauseas, dizziness, or light sensitivity|
Potential Causes of Morning Migraines
From sleep disorders to genetics, there are several possible factors that can cause migraines in the early morning.
Research shows a relationship between sleep disorders and migraines. Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, resulting in poor sleep quality and in severe cases, sleep deprivation.
Sleep quality issues may trigger morning migraines. For example, poor quality sleep—which can be due to obstructive sleep apnea, teeth grinding, or snoring—can trigger migraines.
A lack of sleep, too much sleep, or irregular sleep patterns (which can be caused by sleep-wake disorders or shift work) can also bring on migraines.
Mental health conditions
If you’ve been more stressed than usual lately—perhaps from work or issues with friends or family—you may find that stress is a trigger for morning headaches.
Some mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, can negatively impact sleep quality and increase stress—both of which are common migraine triggers. One study found a link between chronic morning headaches and mental health conditions.
Women are significantly more likely to experience migraines compared to men.
The reproductive hormone estrogen has been shown to play a role in migraine attacks—a drop in estrogen levels can potentially trigger a headache.
People with ovaries experience fluctuations in estrogen levels during their menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, or through perimenopause and menopause.
It’s not uncommon to take over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications to help manage headache pain.
Ironically, over time, the medications a person takes to treat migraine headaches may eventually start causing them. This is because when used over a long period of time, the medications can become less effective—and the headaches that re-emerge become even more painful.
This is known as a medication overuse headache, sometimes called a medication-induced headache or rebound headache.
Research has overwhelmingly shown that there is a significant genetic component to migraines. Based on your family medical history, you may be prone to this neurological disorder.
This connection could explain the cause of your headaches in general, but what triggers a family member’s migraines may differ from your own personal triggers.
Dehydration and caffeine withdrawal
Waking up with a morning headache is more likely if you get dehydrated overnight. Overnight dehydration can be caused by not consuming enough water, sweating while you sleep, or fever.
Some people who consume too much caffeine may also find themselves dehydrated.
If you find yourself reaching for coffee or sugary energy drinks more often than water, you may actually be contributing to your body’s dehydration.
If you consume lots of caffeine, quitting suddenly can cause short-term caffeine withdrawal symptoms—including migraine headaches. But weaning yourself off of caffeine dependency can be beneficial for your health in the long run.
How to Treat Morning Migraines
One of the best things migraine patients can do is avoid any known migraine triggers.
This should substantially help you get fewer headaches. In some cases, avoiding known triggers isn’t quite enough, which is when a medical professional may recommend a migraine treatment plan.
OTC pain relievers, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can be good options for treating morning migraines.
If OTC medications aren’t helping you manage migraine symptoms, your doctor may prescribe prescription drugs to help alleviate pain, prevent migraine attacks, or treat symptoms like nausea and vomiting.
Making lifestyle changes is often an important part of a migraine treatment plan.
For instance, you may need to focus on keeping a consistent sleep schedule. Limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption can also aid in getting quality sleep.
Migraine patients may benefit from implementing a relaxing evening routine to wind down, help get good sleep, and reduce stress. Exercising regularly (several hours before bedtime) can also help you manage stress.
When to See a Doctor for Migraines
If you regularly experience morning migraines, one of the best things you can do is work to understand what could be triggering them.
Keep a headache journal so you can track common factors that precede a migraine attack. If you’re frequently waking up with migraine attacks and feel a large dip in your quality of life, seek medical help.
A physician should be able to assess your situation and help you develop a treatment plan that works for you.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Prevalence and risk factors of morning headaches in the general population. (2004).
Migraine headache: Is it only a neurological disorder? Links between migraine and cardiovascular disorders. (2020).
Migraine and sleep disorders: a systematic review. (2020).
Prevalence and Risk Factors of Morning Headaches in the General Population. (2004).
The complex relationship between estrogen and migraines: a scoping review. (2021).
Medication Overuse Headache. (2016).
Exploring the Hereditary Nature of Migraine. (2021).