We’ve all woken up to it – that relentless head-throbbing with each heart pulsation, that dull, perpetual ache, or even that recurring cranial stab. Whichever form it may take, a morning headache is miserable and often unnerving, making waking up the last thing you want to do.
Beyond their undeniable discomfort, morning headaches possess an additional adverse layer as they are one of the primary symptoms of brain tumors. But do not stress, while brain tumors may be a potential cause for your nagging headache, it is much more likely caused by other sources. In fact, according to the National Brain Tumor Society, about 700,000 or 22% of people in the United States are currently living with a brain tumor while the incidence rate for headaches is estimated to be 78% of the total population (National Brain Tumor Society). Further, 1 in every 4,000 children with headaches is diagnosed with a brain tumor.
So if your headache is not caused by a brain tumor, what is the instigator of all that pain? One possible cause is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing patterns throughout sleep. These pauses can last anywhere from a couple seconds to several minutes, and can occur as often as 30 times in a single hour (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute).
There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome (Mayo Clinic). Obstructive is the most common form and occurs when muscles in the throat relax, causing the airway to collapse or become blocked in the middle of sleeping (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute). Central sleep apnea is a result of improper signaling from the brain to muscles responsible for breathing and complex sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central.
Aside from chronic morning headaches, common symptoms of sleep apnea include (Mayo Clinic):
- Sudden awakenings
- Waking with dry mouth
- Waking with sore throat
- Insomnia (difficulties remaining asleep)
- Exhaustion throughout the day
- Attention deficits
- Episodes of breathing disruption observed by another individual
Morning headaches in addition to some or all of the symptoms listed above, can most likely be attributed to sleep apnea. While highly unlikely, there remains some potential that morning headaches and sleep apnea may be due to a brain tumor. However, this occasionally can be distinguished from standard headaches. Here are a few indicators of when to be concerned:
- Experiencing numbness or weakness in limbs
- Visual disturbances
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Difficulty in speech and word choice
- Headaches are new
- Headaches worsen over the course of several days, weeks or months
- Headaches start first thing in the morning and get better as the day goes
If any of the above symptoms accompany your morning headaches, physicians at the UC Irvine Health Comprehensive Brain Tumor program recommend seeking examination from a neurologist. If not, the cause is likeIy to be uncancerous, although brain tumors do not always present the same symptoms. In fact, up to 60% of individuals with brain tumors do not even experience headaches (CNN).
Even if the causes of morning headaches may not be life-threatening, they still can impact daily functioning and therefore can impede with quality of life. Some possible solutions for morning headaches(National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Mayo Clinic)
- Certain lifestyle changes (i.e. quitting use of harmful substances, weight loss)
- Switching pillows or mattresses
- Maintaining a healthy and consistent sleep-wake cycle
- Taking a warm bath
Aside from sleep apnea and brain tumors, morning headaches can be caused by numerous other including but not limited to: blood pressure issues, chronic tension, migraine headaches, stress, withdrawal from medications or recreational drugs, and many more (Weil). Ultimately, if you’re experiencing morning headaches there is likely a benign or less severe underlying reason than a brain tumor. According to CNN News, 99% of the time you’re experiencing a headache, it’s not a brain tumor (CNN).
Featured photo credit: Castelli Law via castellilaw.com