Understanding the Link Between Migraines and Sleep Problems

Woman in bed with hand over her eyes
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Migraines and sleep abnormalities are complex disorders often intertwined in a vicious cycle of one triggering the other.

Let's examine the link between sleep and migraines so you can take an active role in both your headache and sleep health.

Migraines and Poor Sleep

A 2012 study in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences found that patients with migraines without aura had more sleep abnormalities than the general population.

Also, a study in Headache found that patients with chronic migraines sleep less and have more difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep than patients with episodic migraines. Overall, sleep disturbances are believed to contribute to the transformation from episodic to a chronic migraine in certain people.

The relationship between migraines and sleep disturbances is not well understood. We know that there are several neurotransmitters and brain structures involved in sleep cycle regulation that may also be involved in the development of migraines. For example, serotonin is an important neurotransmitter linked to sleep, mood, and vasoconstriction. Therapies like triptans directed towards migraine treatment often increase the level of serotonin in the brain.

Sleep Disorders Migraineurs Have

Sleep problems found in people with migraines include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty initiating and maintaining sleep
  • Early morning awakenings
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Snoring
  • Restless leg syndrome — a condition characterized by spontaneous, persistent leg movements associated with paresthesias

It's important to know that migraines and sleep problems are common. Having one condition does not mean you will have the other. That being said, if you do suffer from both migraines and sleep problems, it would be prudent to connect the dots and discuss with your doctor whether therapy for one condition can help the other.

What Does This Mean for Me?

  • See your healthcare provider and obtain a proper headache diagnosis. You may need further testing, like a sleep study, to rule out sleep apnea, which can cause early morning headaches.
  • Maintain both a headache diary and sleep log for at least 24 hours. Include measures that promote sleep (sleep aids) and wakefulness (alcohol, caffeine, nicotine). Bring your headache diary and sleep log to your doctor's visit so you can correlate patterns together.
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