Morning Headache – Causes of Head Pain Early in the Day

There are few symptoms as annoying as waking up with a headache in the morning. It can put a damper on the entire day and to an even greater extent when it is accompanied by poor sleep the night before or other symptoms like morning dzziness. Some morning headaches occur for reasons that are independent of time – the headache is present whether it is morning, afternoon or evening. However, there are some specific causes why a headache may occur only in the morning.

It is important to differentiate between headaches that are directly linked to the act of sleeping and headaches that may be occur in the morning irrespective of sleeping or not. For example, morning headaches due to certain factors like insufficient and sleep apnea are directly related to the sleep state. However, headaches associated with a change in blood pressure and glucose levels or with jaw clenching may occur independent of sleeping.

Read more on sleep headaches.

Causes of Morning Headaches

The more common causes of morning headaches has been discussed below. There are several other factors and conditions that also need to be considered as a possible cause of a morning headache. For example, pregnant women may find a morning headache accompanies the morning symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Another possibility is a headache that occurs with allergic rhinitis (nose) or sinusitis as these conditions may worsen in the morning.

People with a history of chronic headaches, whether it is tension-type, cluster, migraines or other types, may experience a worsening or onset of a headache in the morning for several possible reasons. Any headache or other symptoms associated with dizziness, confusion, difficulty breathing, chest pain, suddenly diminished sensation or weakeness or paralysis needs to be investigated immediately by a medical professional.

Read more on morning dizziness.

Inadequate Sleep

Inadequate sleep does not only refer to insufficient sleep, meaning sleep for too few hours. It also refers to the quality of the sleep. There are several reasons why the quality of the sleep may be affected, ranging from an uncomfortable bed, very hot climate and psychological stress to the effects of using certain medication, alcohol excess, acid reflux and sensory disturbances like itching or loud sounds. All of these factors affect the quality of sleep.

Poor Posture

Another common cause of morning headaches is poor sleep posture. A ‘sinking’ mattress and inadequate neck support with the right type of pillows may strain the neck muscles. These muscles then go into spasm giving rise to tension-type headaches. It is most obvious in the morning after prolonged hours of strain. In addition, poor sleep posture may also contribute to inadequate sleep thereby exacerbating the problem.

Nighttime Waking

Many of the factors that affect sleep quality may cause a person to wake up and then return to sleeping. Waking up mid-sleep, even if it is for a few minutes, can affect the quality of sleep. Nighttime waking to urinate is known as nocturia. It can occur several times in the night for people with conditions such as diabetes mellitus or urinary tract infections (UTIs). Pain, breathing problems and itchy skin diseases can also cause nighttime waking.

Jaw Clenching

Clenching of the jaw is another relatively common cause of morning headaches. Many people who have a habit of clenching and are not aware of it. This may be due to a number of reasons, including psychological stress. However, when clenching is a habit there may be no other clearly identifiable cause. Clenching strains the large muscles of the face like the masseter and temporalis muscles which tends to cause headaches on the temples (sides of the head).

Low Blood Glucose

Headaches is also ass`ociated with low blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia). Depending on when a person had their last meal the night before, the blood glucose levels may be very low by the morning. It is more likely to occur where there are problems with glucose control, like hypoglycemia and even with diabetes. In addition, diabetics may experience high blood glucose levels (hyperglycemia) in the morning when awakening which could cause headaches.

High Blood Pressure

Changes in blood pressure during the course of the day is part of the natural cycle. It tends to be lower at night and rises in the early hours of the morning, usually reaching a peak by midday. However, for some people with hypertension, kidney disease, diabetes, thyroid conditions and sleep apnea, the blood pressure may be higher in the morning. This could be a cause of a headache.

Withdrawal Effects

The withdrawal effects of many different drugs and substances can lead to headaches in the morning. People who suffer with headaches and use painkillers to keep the pain at bay may find that these drugs wear off by the next morning. Therefore the pain becomes apparent. The same applies to other drugs, especially addictive drugs and even substances like caffeine, where headaches are one of the many withdrawal symptoms.

Substance Use

Certain substances may cause headaches as a delayed effect for various reasons. This is often seen with excessive consumption of alcohol where a person may wake up with a hangover. A headache is a common symptom of a hangover. A similar effect may be experienced with certain medical drugs such as tranquilizers or even with illicit substances. Some people are more likely to be affected with a morning headache with the use of these substances.

Natural Painkillers

The body secretes certain chemicals that it produces to counteract pain.  However, the levels of these natural painkillers can fluctuate within a 24 hour cycle. As part of the body’s circadian rhythm (24 hour biological clock), the levels of natural painkillers subside in the early hours of the morning. Therefore a person may be more likely to notice a headache or experience a more severe headache when waking in the morning.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that is more frequently seen these days, especially as the most common type of sleep apnea is closely linked to obesity. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles relax and airways narrow. The less common type, central sleep apnea, is due to a disturbance in the brain. In both conditions, breathing stops momentarily and a person awakens to restore breathing. Many people do not know that they have sleep apnea and may experience daytime symptoms like fatigue and morning headaches.


A number of psychological factors can also contribute to headaches. From psychological stress to anxiety and depression, headaches are a common symptom in these conditions. However, these conditions can also affect sleep quality and worsen or trigger morning headaches upon waking. Furthermore the start of a new day and contemplation of the stressful events ahead may also trigger headaches and other symptoms associated with psychological stress and anxiety.

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