Regularly waking up with a headache? A doctor explains what could be causing your morning migraines

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Lauren Geall
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Waking up with a headache can be painful and frustrating – here’s what could be causing it.

Waking up with a headache is the absolute worst

There’s no other way to put it, really – opening your eyes to discover a throbbing pain in your temple just isn’t a good way to start your day.

If you’ve experienced the frustration of waking up with a headache, you’re not alone. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t woken up with a painful head at some point or another.

However, if you’re dealing with morning headaches on the regular, it could be a sign that something specific is causing it. 

What causes morning headaches?

A woman waking up with a headache
Pros and cons of napping: many Brits get less than the recommended amount of sleep each night.

“Nearly all morning headaches are caused by disruptions to sleep,” explains Doctor Daniel Cichi, a GP and medical advisor for Doctor 4 U.

“Waking up with a headache is usually a sign that you’ve lacked quality sleep during the night, and if you’re persistently waking with a headache it could be a sign of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea – which can cause headaches because of the lack of oxygen in the brain during the night – or insomnia.”

Because insomnia can lead to extreme levels of sleep deprivation, the headaches caused by insomnia tend to be migraine headaches which occur in the early morning, Cichi explains. 

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Alongside these common sleep disorders, other common forms of sleep disruption – such as teeth grinding and jaw clenching– can also trigger morning headaches.

Cichi adds: “The tension in the facial muscles from teeth grinding and jaw clenching can cause facial pain and headaches.”

Because sleep disruption, disorders and teeth grinding can all be exacerbated and caused by stress and anxiety, this can often be the root cause – especially if your headaches occur more frequently during stressful periods.

Are morning headaches more common at this time of year?

With sleep disruption and problems becoming more prevalent at this time of year due to the lack of sunlight exposure we experience in winter, our morning headaches can also be exacerbated. 

“The disruptions to our sleeping pattern that happens with the season changes, particularly when the days become shorter and we lack sunlight exposure, can reduce our quality of sleep and trigger headaches when we wake,” Cichi explains.

“Many people also experience more anxiety, depression and stress around this time of year which has a knock-on effect on sleep and can cause those tension-like headaches in the morning.”

What can be done to prevent morning headaches?

A woman on her phone in bed
“By learning more about sleep paralysis, this can help to lower the anxiety.”

In order to prevent morning headaches, you need to address the cause.

Cichi explains: “The way to prevent morning headaches is to address your sleep problems and improve your quality of sleep. If you have or think you have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea, you should get this checked out as soon as possible as it can be serious if it is left untreated.”

However, if you think your morning headaches might be caused by stress and anxiety instead of a diagnosable sleep disorder, making simple changes to your routine – such as avoiding blue-light emitting devices before bed – may solve the problem.

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“Too much screen time and stimulation before bed can cause you to wake through the night and makes it harder to fall asleep at a reasonable time so that you can get a sufficient number of hours of sleep to feel refreshed in the morning,” Cichi adds. 

“This is because the blue light emitted from screens can suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that encourages you to fall asleep.”

What can be done to treat morning headaches?

There’s nothing worse than waking up with a headache and having it overshadow your entire day – so what can we do to get rid of a morning headache as soon as possible?

“If your headaches are regular, it’s important to get the underlying cause addressed as soon as possible by your doctor – or dentist, if teeth grinding is the cause,” Cichi says.

“To treat the occasional morning headache you can take a painkiller and drink plenty of water as dehydration can make these headaches worse.”

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He continues: “You could also try eating a balanced breakfast within half an hour of waking, as people often get headaches when they’re hungry.

“Avoid eating processed foods and drinking too much caffeine in the morning though, as these can be a trigger for migraines.”

Although it’s likely to be nothing serious, if your headaches are regular, it’s important to get them checked out by a medical professional.

You can find more information about coping with headaches on the NHS website.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with stress, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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