Headache is a common symptom in people with sleep disorders. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can worsen headaches or migraine. Too much sleep can also trigger migraines.

Headaches can also cause sleep problems. What is the link between headache and sleep and what can be done to improve both headache and sleep?

What are the different types of headaches?

Headaches are widespread in the community. The most typical type of headache syndrome is migraine, which is more common in females than in men. Other types of headache syndromes that can be pretty common include chronic tension headaches. There are more uncommon types of headaches that have a particular relevance to sleep, cluster type headaches.

It’s often hard to know whether the sleep disorder causes the headache or the headache causes the sleep disorder. What’s interesting, for instance, migraine disorders which typically come on in adolescence or aged 20s and 30s, are usually associated with headaches, though interestingly, not all migraines involve a headache. The headache tends to have at least a couple of the following types of pain characteristics.

How are headaches treated?

Treating headaches is not about finding a stronger pill or pain reliever, it is actually about the use of these. So it’s important to have a discussion with your doctor about how frequently you can use analgesic medications, whether it’s something as simple as paracetamol.

Treating headaches should be about sleep hygiene, the maintaining a healthy weight, keeping physically active, managing stress, mindfulness techniques, as well as healthy eating.

It is also important for people to avoid headache or migraine triggers. Factors such as stress can suddenly bring on a headache or a migraine. 

Despite the availability of multiple drugs, they are often not as effective as we wish they were. Also, many patients who have persistent headaches need some sort of circuit breaker. Botox may have a beneficial effect for some people. Botox can reduce muscle tension in the head and the neck. Patients tend to get three monthly treatment schedules, and the effect tends to build up over time to reduce the number of headaches that people experience. 

What is the relationship between headache and sleep?

Although headaches have been linked to sleep problems for over a century, there is little information about the spectrum or prevalence of specific sleep problems associated with headache or migraine in adults. That is why Dr Anne Calhoun (Neurologist) conducted a detailed sleep interview on women with migraine.

The study focused on detailed sleep interviews with 147 consecutive women with migraine. Subjective sleep quality was assessed by asking patients to describe their state as “refreshed” or “tired” upon awakening. None of the 147 patients reported awakening “refreshed,” and 83.7% stated that they were “tired.” Sleep complaints were prevalent and varied in this population. In conclusion, the relationship between pain and sleep is complex and ill-understood. Since behavioural approaches have been found effective in improving sleep quality in patients with poor sleep hygiene, the team proposed that studies be undertaken to assess the impact of such treatment on migraine.

This study and the relationship between headaches and sleep is discussed in this podcast episode:

What can you do? 

The most common sense thing to do is to respect sleep more, prioritise it, calm down, slow down, etc. and that in itself can improve the quality of sleep. If you’re looking for more information on headaches, there’s an excellent resource in Australia that is part of the Brain Foundation: HeadacheAustralia.org.au.

You can also consider training in strategies such as mindfulness. There are a range of resources with structured training programs:

  • Introduction to mindfulness – Free online course offered via This  Way Up
  • Open Ground – run face-to-face and virtual training in mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)
  • A Mindful Wayonline course developed by Giselle Withers, (Clinical Psychologist) incorporating mindfulness based and cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia. 

Getting enough sleep is an important part of staying healthy. If you do get a tension or migraine headache from a lack of sleep, seeking treatment right away can help reduce its duration and severity. If you have tried home remedies but still need help, talk to your health professional as they will be able to direct you to more resources or refer you to experts for help.

Need more information on how you can sleep better?

At Sleephub we understand the struggle people endure with sleeping problems which is why we have created a comprehensive FAQs page with information for those seeking information about sleep disorders and potential solutions. You can also check out our extensive resources and subscribe to our podcast.

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