What Does a Sleep Apnea Headache Feel Like? Symptoms Explained

A sleep apnea headache often feels like a dull, constant ache or pressure in the morning, caused by oxygen deprivation during the night.

If you have trouble with obstructive sleep apnea, you might get a special headache. It happens when you breathe stops and starts at night. These headaches are unique but knowing more about them can help you deal with this symptom.1

One source describes a sleep apnea headache as a pressing pain on both sides of the head. It usually comes on right after you wake up.1 These headaches don’t cause sickness or make you extra sensitive to light and sound.

Another source says they usually happen in the morning, right after you wake up. But, some people might also get them in the middle of the night.2 They feel like a pressing pain on both sides of the head. This pain can last for 30 minutes to 4 hours.

The third info explains that sleep apnea headaches are felt as a pressing, not throbbing, pain. It affects both sides of the head. This pain can last up to four hours.3

Key Takeaways

  • Sleep apnea headaches are characterized by a pressing, bilateral pain, unlike the pulsating, one-sided pain of migraines.
  • These headaches typically occur upon waking or during the night and can last from 30 minutes to several hours.
  • Sleep apnea headaches do not cause additional symptoms like nausea, light sensitivity, or an aura that are common with migraines.
  • Risk factors for sleep apnea headaches include age, obesity, anatomical factors, and lifestyle factors like smoking and alcohol use.
  • CPAP therapy is the most effective treatment for resolving sleep apnea headaches.

Introduction to Sleep Apnea Headaches

Sleep apnea makes a person stop breathing now and then at night. This happens to about 3% to 5% of adults.4 Surprisingly, 12–18% of those with sleep apnea wake up with headaches.4 For it to be a sleep apnea headache, someone must have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). They need an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) of 5 or more. These are the terms defined in the second source.5 It’s believed up to 18% of people with OSA get these headaches.

Distinguishing Features from Migraines

Sleep apnea headaches are different from migraines. They usually don’t make you feel sick, sensitive to light or sound, or see an aura.4 Sleep apnea headaches feel like a pressing pain in both sides of your head. This is unlike the throbbing pain of migraines.4 This unique pain pattern helps doctors tell sleep apnea headaches apart from migraines.5

What Does a Sleep Apnea Headache Feel Like?

Sleep apnea makes your breathing stop and start when you sleep. It brings a unique headache called a sleep apnea headache. This kind of headache feels like a tight, pressing pain on both sides of your head. It often happens when you wake up. Or, it might wake you up in the middle of the night.1

Pressing Pain on Both Sides of the Head

A sleep apnea headache feels like someone pressing on your head. This pain is different from migraines. Migraines usually hurt on just one side of the head. But with sleep apnea headaches, the whole head feels the pressure.1

Timing: Upon Waking or During the Night

These headaches often start as the day begins or when you first wake up.1 They also surprise some by showing up in the night. Some might feel them when they wake up. Others might be woken by the pain in the middle of the night.2

Duration: Less Than 30 Minutes to Several Hours

Sleep apnea headaches don’t all last the same amount of time. Some go away in less than 30 minutes. Others can last for a few hours. The third source says they might last up to four hours.13

Symptoms and Characteristics of Sleep Apnea Headaches

Sleep apnea headaches are not like common migraines. They don’t make you sick or cause problems with light or noise.1 These headaches happen on both sides of your head. And, they feel more like a press than a throb.1

Lack of Nausea, Photophobia, or Phonophobia

Compared to migraines, sleep apnea headaches are quite different. They don’t come with typical migraine signs. There’s usually no feeling sick, being too sensitive to light or sound, or seeing an aura.2 So, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Bilateral Pain, Not Pulsating

Sleep apnea headaches bring a pressing feeling on both sides of your head. This is not like the throbbing ache you get with a migraine, usually just on one side.1 The pain spreading to both sides is a big clue it’s a sleep apnea headache.

Comparison with Migraine Headaches

Another important point is how different sleep apnea headaches are from migraines. They usually avoid the extra symptoms that come with migraines.2 This fact greatly helps in telling them apart and figuring out their causes.

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sleep apnea headache

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea Headaches

Age and obesity raise the risk of sleep apnea headaches. As you get older and gain weight, this risk goes up.1

Age and Obesity

The chance of having sleep apnea and its headaches goes up as you age. Being obese is a big risk. Fatty neck deposits can block your airway, leading to sleep apnea.1

Anatomical Factors

Some body features can also boost the risk. A wide neck, big tonsils, and a large tongue can narrow your upper airway. This can cause breathing problems linked to sleep apnea.1

Lifestyle Factors

Choices in life can influence sleep apnea headaches. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and certain lung problems are risks.1
The odds go up for women and those with a headache history too.3

Knowing these factors lets people with sleep apnea act early. They can lower the chances of getting sleep apnea headaches.

Underlying Mechanisms and Causes

The reasons behind sleep apnea headaches are not totally clear. However, experts think several things may cause them. They say these headaches might happen because of not enough oxygen during sleep. Or due to the sleep getting interrupted by breathing pauses of sleep apnea.6

Oxygen Deprivation and Hypoxemia

People with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) might have lower oxygen in their blood while sleeping. This could cause sleep apnea headaches.6 But, some studies showed that those with OSA, whether they get headaches or not, often have the same oxygen levels and number of breathing pauses.6 So, just the lack of oxygen might not be the real cause.

Sleep Disruption and Fragmentation

Besides low oxygen, problems like poor sleep quality and constant wake ups may also lead to these headaches.6 The interruptions in sleep, in general, are tough for people with OSA. This tough sleep might start their headaches.

Other Headache Types Associated with Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is connected to different headaches besides sleep apnea headaches. It’s linked to cluster headaches and hypnic headaches as well.7 Knowing the differences is key to better diagnosis and care.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are not the same as sleep apnea headaches. They mostly happen when people are sleeping. Sleep apnea headaches, on the other hand, occur when people wake up.7 Cluster headaches also bring some extra signs like a runny or stuffed nose, eyes tearing, forehead sweat, and swollen or drooping eyes.7

Hypnic Headaches

Hypnic headaches, or the “alarm clock headache,” are related to OSA too. They start 4 to 6 hours after sleep and wake the person up. This is unlike sleep apnea headaches, which happen when waking up.7

It’s crucial health providers spot the signs of each headache type. This way, they can treat the sleep disorder correctly. This improves how well patients do in the end.7

Diagnosis and Evaluation

To get a sleep apnea headache diagnosis, you need known obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is with an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) of 5 or more.8 If not, the headaches might be morning headaches, with similar signs.8

If you have health issues like severe or often headaches, check with a professional. This is crucial if you already have a sleep apnea diagnosis.3

Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea Headaches

The main way to treat sleep apnea is with a CPAP machine.1 CPAP helps by giving a continuous flow of air. This keeps the airway open during sleep. CPAP is known to work well. It makes morning headaches go away in 90% of people with sleep apnea.1 It also helps lower the chance of having a stroke, lowers blood pressure, and makes memory better.1

Oral Appliances and Devices

Other than CPAP, there are also mouthpieces and tongue devices.1 These help by moving the jaw or tongue forward. This keeps the airway clear while sleeping.2

Surgical Interventions

Sometimes, surgery is needed for sleep apnea.1 Surgery can fix things like big tonsils, soft tissues in the throat, or the position of the jaw.1

Talking to a doctor is key to finding the best way to treat sleep apnea and its headaches.2 The aim is to treat the sleep apnea which helps stop the morning headaches. This makes life better for the patient.1,2

what does a sleep apnea headache feel like

Sleep apnea headaches feel like a pressing pain on both sides of the head. They are not throbbing and affect both sides equallly (bilateral).2 These headaches occur when waking up or at night. They can last from less than 30 minutes to several hours.2 They don’t cause nausea or bother you with light or sound sensitivity.

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About 3% to 5% of middle-aged adults face sleep apnea. A morning headache affects 12–18% of them.1 Obstructive sleep apnea affects 2% to 5% of people 45–64 years old.2 In a 2020 study, 29% of those with OSAS had morning headaches.2

The headache pain is pressing on both sides. It can last from 30 minutes to 4 hours.2 These headaches don’t disable you, unlike migraines. Factors like age, obesity, smoking, and big tonsils can increase the risk.1

Treatments for these headaches include CPAP, oral devices, and surgery.2 CPAP is the top way to treat sleep apnea.2 It often gets rid of morning headaches. In 90% of cases, morning headaches went away with CPAP.1 CPAP can also lower your stroke risk and improve memory.1

To sum up, sleep apnea headaches are different from migraines. They have a distinct pressing pain on both sides. They occur in the morning or at night, lasting from a few minutes to several hours. They usually come alone, without nausea or light and sound issues.

Prevention and Management Strategies

Sleep apnea headaches are linked closely to the sleep apnea condition. Preventing and managing sleep apnea helps with the headaches too. This means making lifestyle changes and lowering the risk factors for sleep apnea.9

Lifestyle Modifications

Lifestyle changes can really help with sleep apnea headaches. If you’re overweight, losing weight is key. Being too heavy is a big risk for sleep apnea.9 Also, not drinking too much alcohol or smoking is important. These habits can make sleep apnea worse and headaches more painful.10

Addressing Underlying Risk Factors

We also need to work on the things that cause sleep apnea. This can help with the headaches. For example, as we get older, the chance of sleep apnea goes up.9 Fixing things like a narrow airway can be done with special devices or surgery. This helps too.9

Managing stress is another good step. Techniques like meditation and relaxation can lower the stress that makes sleep apnea worse.11 Exercise is great for managing headaches. It’s especially good for tension headaches that people with sleep apnea often get.9

All these changes can make a big difference. By working on sleep apnea with lifestyle changes and other help, we can fight the headaches. This improves life quality.10

Impact on Quality of Life

Sleep apnea headaches can really hurt how someone enjoys life.3 Since sleep apnea makes people feel tired, unclear, and less sharp during the day, sleep apnea headaches can hurt life too.3

Daytime Fatigue and Brain Fog

People with sleep apnea often feel tired and have a cloudy mind during the day.3 This can make it hard to focus, work, or do daily tasks well. It may lower someone’s ability to be productive and happy.

Productivity and Cognitive Function

Sleep apnea headaches can make someone feel more tired and less sharp during the day.3 This could mean not doing great at work or at home. It can make life less enjoyable.

Treating the sleep apnea and managing the headaches can make a big difference.12 This could help people feel more alert, clear, and ready for the day. It’s a step towards a better life.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Having bad headaches often, especially when you just wake up, means you should see a doctor, especially if you have sleep apnea.1 If headaches are happening a lot, make it hard to sleep or work, or don’t get better with normal medicine, talk to a doctor.

Frequent or Severe Headaches

Headaches that wake you up, if you have sleep apnea, need a doctor to check them out.1 Also, if headaches are very bad, make it hard to do your daily stuff, or don’t go away with regular pain meds, you should see a doctor.

Red Flag Symptoms

Bad headaches all of a sudden, with other scary symptoms like feeling weak, a stiff neck, a high fever, can’t talk well, or sudden vision changes, might be an emergency.1 Don’t wait if you have these signs; see a doctor right away.


Research and Future Directions

We don’t have clear details on future research about sleep apnea headaches. But, different studies show a link between sleep apnea seriousness and sleep apnea headaches. More research is needed to totally understand this.8 Also, we need to look at how sleep apnea headaches affect quality of life long-term. And we must check if different treatments work well for this condition.

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The first study shows that between 10% and 30% of people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea get headaches in the morning.8 The second study found that people with OSA were 1.18 times more likely to get TTH than those without OSA. And it found that the rate of TTH was higher in OSA patients (37 out of 1000) compared to non-OSA patients (28 out of 1000).13 These results show a complex link between sleep apnea and headaches. This deserves more research.

The third study says 53.4% of people had morning headaches before using PAP therapy. After PAP therapy, this number dropped to 16.4%.14 This shows that treating sleep apnea can really cut down on sleep apnea headaches.

We need more studies to find out how sleep apnea and headaches are linked. We should also look into the long-term benefits of different treatments for sleep apnea and headaches. This includes how these treatments can improve life quality.


Sleep apnea headaches can happen if you have obstructive sleep apnea. It’s a breathing problem when you sleep. These headaches feel like a tight and heavy pain, mostly in the morning or at night. They could last from a short time to many hours.5 These headaches are different from migraines because you don’t feel sick or sensitive to light and sound with them.

If you’re older, overweight, or have specific body shapes, you might get these headaches.5 To help with sleep apnea headaches, focus on fixing your sleep apnea problem first. This can include using a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, mouth guards, or surgeries.15 If you have bad headaches a lot, especially if you have sleep apnea, it’s best to see a doctor. They can check what’s going on and help you feel better.

Morning headaches and feeling tired or forgetful can really harm your everyday life.515 But treating the main problem, obstructive sleep apnea, can make things a lot better. It can improve your health and how you feel in general.


What is a sleep apnea headache?

A sleep apnea headache happens in people with obstructive sleep apnea. It feels like a pressing pain on both sides of the head. This pain can happen when waking up or at night, and might last a short time or several hours.

How common are sleep apnea headaches?

Around 12–18% of those with sleep apnea may get these headaches. They are most common in middle-aged adults, affecting 3% to 5% of them.

How do sleep apnea headaches differ from migraine headaches?

These headaches are different because they do not cause nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, or an aura. The pain is pressing and felt on both sides of the head.

When do sleep apnea headaches typically occur?

They often happen in the morning or during the night when waking up. These headaches can last for a little while or for several hours.

What are the risk factors for developing sleep apnea headaches?

People at risk for sleep apnea headaches share the same risks as those for sleep apnea. This includes being older, obesity, certain physical features, and habits like smoking and drinking. Women and people with a headache history are at higher risk.

What causes sleep apnea headaches?

We don’t know the exact reason yet. But, they might be due to low oxygen in the blood while sleeping. Or, the disturbed sleep from breathing pauses in sleep apnea might play a role.

How are sleep apnea headaches diagnosed?

First, a person must have a sleep apnea diagnosis with an AHI of 5 or more. Then, if their headaches are mainly in the morning, these are considered to be sleep apnea headaches.

How are sleep apnea headaches treated?

The top treatment is CPAP therapy. This helps by keeping the airway open while you sleep. Other options include special mouthpieces and surgery in some cases.

When should someone seek medical attention for a sleep apnea headache?

If you have sleep apnea and notice morning headaches, it’s time to see a doctor. Also, if your headaches are often very bad, keep you from sleep or normal activities, or don’t get better with usual medicines, seek medical help.

Source Links

  1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/sleep-apnea-headache
  2. https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-apnea-headache
  3. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-apnea/sleep-apnea-headaches
  4. https://johnagarzadds.com/sleep-apnea-headache/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7016602/
  6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/central-sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20352109
  7. https://www.sleepcareonline.com/articles/sleep-apnea-and-headaches/
  8. https://www.sleepapnea.org/sleep-health/sleep-apnea-headaches/
  9. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/in-depth/headaches/art-20047631
  10. https://www.uhhospitals.org/blog/articles/2023/03/morning-headaches-sleep-apnea-could-be-the-cause
  11. https://www.jntdental.com/unravel-the-stress-connection-strategies-for-managing-tmd-headaches-and-sleep-apnea
  12. https://sleepcenterinfo.com/blog/sleep-apnea-headaches/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408303/
  14. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-023-34896-0
  15. https://www.tmjtexas.com/sleep-apnea-headache