The Diagnosis and Treatment of a Sleep Apnea Headache

Do you suffer from a headache when you wake up in the morning? Do you also find yourself dozing off multiple times throughout the day? Does your partner report episodes of snoring at night? You may be suffering from a medical condition called Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).

Let's review the basics of what OSA is and the morning "sleep apnea headache" that may accompany it.

Woman sitting on bed with headache
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What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)?

OSA is a medical condition characterized by frequent nighttime awakenings due to abnormal breathing during sleep. People with OSA have episodes throughout the night where they either stop breathing or breathe shallowly, causing low oxygen levels.

As a result of this disorder, people with OSA often report excessive daytime sleepiness, thinking problems, and morning headaches. The diagnosis of OSA is made by a sleep specialist after a patient undergoes an overnight sleep study.

What Is a Sleep Apnea Headache?

According to the classification criteria of the third edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorder (ICHD-III), a sleep apnea headache is a recurrent morning headache in a person who has been diagnosed with sleep apnea. A headache has one or more of the following features:

  • Occurs more than 15 times a month.
  • Occurs on both sides of the head, has a pressing quality, and is not associated with nausea, photophobia, or sensitivity to sound. 
  • A headache resolves within 4 hours

Before making the diagnosis, your healthcare provider will take a thorough history and perform a careful physical examination to make sure there is not another cause for your headaches, especially since multiple medical conditions can cause morning headaches. Examples of conditions that may cause a morning headache include:

  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD)
  • Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (Pickwickian Syndrome)

The Science

The precise "why" behind a sleep apnea headache is not fully understood. It may be due to the actual sleep disturbance. Or, the headache could be triggered by the low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels that occur during the repetitive episodes of apnea.


Treatment of a sleep apnea headache entails treating the primary disorder, OSA. Sleep apnea is usually treated with a variety of interventions including weight loss, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), upper airway surgery, and treatment of nasal allergies.

What This Means for You

If you think you suffer from a sleep apnea headache, please speak with your healthcare provider. The good news is that there are effective therapies out there for your sleep apnea and your morning headaches. Also, with treatment, you will likely find that you feel better and improve other health parameters, besides just your headaches.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Suzuki K, Miyamoto M, Miyamoto T, et al. Sleep apnoea headache in obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome patients presenting with morning headache: comparison of the ICHD-2 and ICHD-3 beta criteria. J Headache Pain. 2015;16:56. doi:10.1186/s10194-015-0540-6

  2. Cho SJ, Chung YK, Kim JM, Chu MK. Migraine and restless legs syndrome are associated in adults under age fifty but not in adults over fifty: a population-based study. J Headache Pain. 2015;16:554. doi:10.1186/s10194-015-0554-0

  3. Warricker F, Islam Z, Shah BN. Lesson of the month 1: Obesity hypoventilation (Pickwickian) syndrome: a reversible cause of severe pulmonary hypertension. Clin Med (Lond). 2017;17(6):578-581. doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.17-6-578

  4. Romero-corral A, Caples SM, Lopez-jimenez F, Somers VK. Interactions between obesity and obstructive sleep apnea: implications for treatment. Chest. 2010;137(3):711-9. doi:10.1378/chest.09-0360

Additional Reading
  • Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.
  • Hensley M, Ray C. Sleep Apnea.Am Fam Physician. 2010 Jan 15;81(2):195-196.
  • Rains JC, Poceta JS. Headache and sleep disorders: Review and clinical implications for headache management. Headache. 2006;46(9):1344-1361.

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.