Headache From Lack of Sleep: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment

Sleep is essential for your health and well-being. It’s when your body repairs and restores functions like the immune, circulatory, and hormonal systems. When we don’t get the sleep our bodies require, it can lead to sleep deprivation symptoms like headaches.

Headaches are generally defined as pain in your head, face, or upper neck. They are commonly triggered by factors like lack of sleep, fatigue, stress, and hunger.

This article provides an overview of the link between headaches and lack of sleep and offers tips on potential treatment options.

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The Link Between Headaches and Lack of Sleep

While research shows a link between certain types of headaches and not getting enough sleep, this relationship is complex and not fully understood. However, these types of headaches likely stem from a disruption in balance between sleep and wakefulness in the body.

Changes that throw off your sleep-wake pattern (circadian rhythms) can lead to headaches, such as:

It’s recommended that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Lack of sleep can lead to adverse health effects and can make it more difficult for various functions in the body to restore properly.

Mechanisms involved in the sleep cycle regulation are thought to play a role in headaches, including:

  • Chemical messengers like serotonin (a chemical that contributes to wakefulness)
  • Brain structures like the brain stem and hypothalamus (which regulate sleep stages)
  • Glymphatic system (mechanism responsible for clearing waste product from the brain)

Some people are more likely to experience headaches due to lack of sleep. This can include people who suffer from chronic migraine, people who routinely sleep less than the recommended amount, and people who experience chronic stress.

Types of Sleep Deprivation Headaches

different types of headaches are linked to lack of sleep or sleep disturbances, including several migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and hypnic headaches.

Migraines

A migraine is not just a “bad headache.” It’s a specific type of headache that’s considered to be a neurological condition because of how it affects the brain.

Chronic migraines severely impact daily life and functioning, causing symptoms like:

  • Extreme pain on one side of the head
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Visual disturbances
  • sound sensitivity
  • Dizziness

Researchers are still studying the complex relationship between migraines and sleep. Current research shows that:

  • Both lack of sleep and too much sleep are common migraine triggers.
  • People who suffer from migraines are up to 8 times more likely to have a sleep disorder than the general population.
  • Sleep disturbances may contribute to the jump from episodic migraine (fewer than 15 migraines per month) to chronic migraine (15 or more migraines per month) in some people.

Tension Headaches

This common type of headache is generally described as a dull tightening or pressure on both sides of the head. Tension headaches may start at the forehead and circle around to the back of the head.

Studies have found that a lack of sleep can trigger tension headaches. Experts think that the hypothalamus (part of the brain that helps control and regulate hormones) likely plays a role, in addition to brain signals that may reduce the body’s pain threshold and prompt a tension headache.

Other research notes that a cycle of napping after an episode of insomnia can continually trigger a tension headache the following day.

Cluster Headaches and Hypnic Headaches

Rarer headaches that tend to happen at night are also connected to a lack of sleep, such as:

  • Cluster headache: These extremely painful headaches usually occur in the evening or early morning hours, prompting severe head pain around the eye area. They’re often shorter in duration than other types of headaches (lasting five minutes to two hours). Experts theorize that transitioning out of the rapid eye movement (REM) dream state of sleep may play a role in triggering cluster headache attacks.
  • Hypnic headache: Sometimes referred to as an “alarm clock” headache, hypnic headaches awaken the person and strike around the same time at night. Also shorter in duration, researchers think the cause may be linked to a disturbance with the body’s production of melatonin (the hormone that makes you feel tired).

Other Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is defined as getting less sleep than your body needs to maintain optimal physical and mental health.

Feeling tired and sluggish is the primary symptom, but others include:

  • Mood or behavioral changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems with planning, organization, and judgment
  • Disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia
  • Body aches
  • Upset stomach
  • A small decrease in your body temperature (feeling cold)

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Most healthy adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but this varies by person. Some people may require more, while others may require less, and sleep needs can change throughout our lives.

To determine how much sleep you need, try testing it out by going to bed when you’re tired and sleeping straight through until you naturally wake up. While this isn’t always possible for people with children, work schedules, pets, and other obligations, if you can set aside a few nights, you’ll likely find the average length of time your body prefers to sleep.

Factors That Affect Sleep Needs

The amount of sleep you need depends on several factors, including your age, lifestyle, health, genetics, and whether you’ve been getting enough sleep recently. Experts generally recommend sleep guidelines close to the following:

  • Infants (3–11 months) need 12–16 hours
  • Toddlers (12–35 months) need 11–14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3–6 years) need 10–13 hours
  • School-age children (6–10 years) need nine to 12 hours
  • Adolescents (11–18 years) need eight to 10 hours
  • Adults (18–64 years) need seven to nine hours
  • Elderly adults (65 and older) need seven to eight hours

Treatment

Treatment options for headaches related to a lack of sleep will depend on the underlying cause.

Before creating a treatment plan, a healthcare provider may ask you to consider keeping a headache and sleep journal to record:

  • The amount of sleep you get
  • The quality of your sleep
  • The number of headache days per month
  • Any other symptoms you notice on headache days

In addition to speaking with you about getting enough quality sleep, if it’s determined you’re suffering from migraine or headaches, your healthcare provider may also recommend more specific treatments. These options may include:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Using an ice pack
  • Lying down in a quiet, dark room
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications for mild pain
  • Prescribing medications to abort a migraine, control migraine pain, or prevent the number of migraine days per month

When to See a Healthcare Provider

An occasional headache due to a lack of sleep is usually not a cause for alarm. But there are certain situations in which headaches can signal a serious condition or potentially life-threatening issue. See a healthcare provider if you notice your usual headache pattern changing, becoming more frequent, or interfering with daily activities.

Seek medical attention right away if your headache:

  • Is unusually severe or starts suddenly
  • Occurs after a blow or injury to the head
  • Occurs with stiff neck, seizures, fainting, confusion, weakness, or numbness
  • Starts or changes during pregnancy

Prevention

To help prevent headaches due to a lack of sleep, your healthcare provider may recommend some lifestyle changes to address your sleep habits. If there are no other underlying medical causes, getting enough restful sleep on a regular basis may help reduce these headaches.

Some potential prevention tips include:

  • Going to bed and waking up around the same time each day
  • Keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or large meals close to bedtime
  • Getting more exercise during the day (but not close to bedtime)
  • Keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom

Summary

Not getting enough sleep can throw off your body’s sleep-wake pattern and lead to headaches. If this happens frequently, keeping a headache/sleep journal and improving your sleep habits may be good first steps. See a healthcare provider to rule out a sleep disorder, chronic migraine, or another underlying health condition, and talk through treatment options that will work best for you.

A Word From Verywell

It’s frustrating enough to feel tired from a poor night’s sleep, but having a headache on top of it only makes matters worse. As researchers continue to explore the link between sleep and headaches, more effective treatment options will be available. In the meantime, try improving your sleep habits and checking with a healthcare provider to rule out any serious underlying conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does a sleep deprivation headache feel like?

    It depends on the type of headache you’re experiencing. A tension headache caused by lack of sleep may feel like a dull ache or tight pressure around the forehead, while a migraine headache often manifests as severe pain on one side of the head, along with nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Check with a healthcare provider if your head pain is severe, worsening, or unusual.

  • Can a lack of sleep make you sick?

    Sleep deprivation can obviously make you feel tired. But a lack of sleep—especially if it happens routinely—can have negative consequences for the brain and body, including memory impairment, mood disorders, poor concentration, altered blood pressure, and hallucinations, to name a few.

  • Should you sleep through the night, or is it okay to sleep in increments throughout the day?

    Healthy sleep schedules can be different for everyone, but experts generally recommend getting consistent, quality sleep by staying asleep for a good amount of time, ideally throughout the night. Shorter daytime sleep sessions tend to be disruptive and destructive to your health, unless you’re a new parent, shift worker, or have another circumstance that requires snoozing incrementally.

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