With the major link between TMJ and migraines via the trigeminal nerve, it’s understandable that normally when we talk about headaches, we emphasize Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ/TMD).

However, sleep apnea is also a major contributor to your headache risk, and it can lead to all common types of headaches.

man waking up with a migraine headache

The “Textbook” Sleep Apnea Headache

Headaches specifically linked to sleep apnea are a common type of morning headache. They are often felt right upon waking, and will likely affect you most mornings. However, these morning headaches might resolve spontaneously within a half-hour of waking. Sleep apnea headaches are distinguished from morning headaches of other types (which people might also experience related to sleep apnea).

Not all people with sleep apnea get morning headaches. Estimates of the amount of sleep apnea sufferers who develop morning headaches range from 30-50%. Recent research suggests that morning headaches are most likely to occur in people who wake up tired or complain about unrefreshing sleep. Women are more likely to experience this type of morning headache than men, and those with high blood pressure also see an elevated risk.

Some studies report that severe sleep apnea is associated with more common morning headaches. Others report morning headaches are not related to the severity of sleep apnea. However, the consensus is that sleep apnea treatment dramatically reduces the frequency of morning headaches, likey by as much as 80%. This could include migraine morning headaches. Other types of morning headaches, such as tension or cluster, may not resolve as well.

Tension Headaches and Sleep Apnea

Tension headaches account for about nine out of ten headaches and are related to muscle tension constricting the skull and putting pressure on certain nerves. The pain can be from the muscles themselves or the nerves.

Sleep apnea contributes to tension headaches because of the way your body responds to apneic events. The jaw is the primary bony support for your airway, and when the airway collapses, the body attempts to give it more support by clenching the jaw. This can lead to jaw pain and tension headaches.

Cervicogenic Headaches and Sleep Apnea

Cervicogenic headaches are caused by the irritation of certain nerves in the spinal column. This leads to referred pain that you feel in the forehead and around the eye, usually on one side of the head.

You might develop cervicogenic headaches after sleep apnea because your body is trying to find a position that might maintain an open airway. This can make your spinal column flex to one side or another, which puts pressure on the cervical nerves. You might also experience cervicogenic headaches because the force of the jaw—clenching the teeth to try to get support for the airway—can pull neck vertebrae out of position.

TMJ can mediate this connection. An unbalanced jaw can pull cervical vertebrae out of position all day, causing a more serious misalignment that becomes acute pain at night. If you wake up tired and have this type of headache, consider not only sleep apnea but TMJ as potential causes.

Migraine Headaches and Sleep Apnea

The mechanisms that link migraines and sleep apnea are less well understood because migraines themselves are mysterious.

But we do know that sleep apnea treatment relieves migraines and there are several potential links. First, there’s the trigeminal nerve irritation that may be fostered by jaw clenching overnight. Also, migraines are partly vascular, and one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea is high blood pressure, so there could be a vascular link. Finally, people with sleep apnea often suffer from irritability and stress, which can contribute to migraines.

If you wake up tired and have chronic migraines, it’s time to talk to a doctor or sleep dentist about the possible connection between your migraines and sleep apnea.

Cluster Headaches and Sleep Apnea

Cluster headaches are a very severe, but less common form of headache. They are short, intense headaches occurring at night and felt on one side of the head. Although they do not last for long, they occur, as the name implies, in clusters, with people suffering from many headaches a day for a period of a few short days. The headaches may not recur for months.

The nighttime incidence of cluster headaches makes sleep disturbances a natural link for these headaches. There are many potential reasons why these headaches might come from sleep apnea, such as oxygen shortage or jaw clenching. Periodicity of cluster headaches may relate to seasonal causes of sleep apnea.

However, these are all speculation without enough evidence to support them. For now, the association between cluster headaches and sleep apnea is not well-established. It’s worth it to talk to your doctor about sleep apnea if you have cluster headaches and wake up tired, but sleep apnea treatment may not provide as much relief for this type of headache.

Help for Morning Headaches from Sleep Apnea in Denver

Morning headaches are one of the many disabling symptoms of sleep apnea. If you are suffering from headaches that you think might be linked to sleep apnea in Denver, please call (303) 691-0267 for an appointment with a sleep dentist at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado.