Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep condition when a person intermittently stops breathing during sleep. Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring and morning headaches. At Advanced Ear, Nose & Throat Associates in Atlanta, GA, we’ll help you get rid of your recurring sleep apnea headache along with the symptoms that come with it.
What Is a Sleep Apnea Headache?
According to the third edition of the International Classifications of Headache Disorder, you may have the condition if you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea and suffer from recurrent morning headaches with one or more of the following criteria:
- You have 15 or more headaches within a month
- It’s a pressing headache that occurs on both sides of the head
- Headache does not involve nausea or sound sensitivity
- Your headache resolves within four hours
If you wake up with or are awakened by headaches, there is a 50% chance it may be associated with sleep apnea. OSA causes your oxygen levels to drop because you involuntarily stop breathing. During these periods of intermittent breathing, the air becomes trapped in the lungs and becomes de-oxygenated and converted to carbon dioxide.
The built-up carbon monoxide spills into the bloodstream, which leads to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. The increased level of carbon monoxide causes the blood vessels both near and in the head to dilate. The widening of the blood vessels and the abnormal levels of carbon dioxide cause sleep apnea headaches. Furthermore, the disruption of sleep through this process can induce a sleep apnea headache.
The scientific evidence concerning the relationship between headaches and sleep apnea shows that sleep apnea headaches may be the result of:
- Disruption of sleep as a result of OSA
- Increased carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream
- Dilated blood vessels because of the increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea Headaches
The diagnostic process begins with a visit to a doctor. It also requires ruling out other disorders and establishing an OSA diagnosis.
Make an Appointment With an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist
Our doctors will review your medical history and symptoms, conduct a physical exam, and:
- Order tests
- Rule out other conditions
- Refer you to a sleep specialist to test for sleep apnea if necessary
Talk to us about other symptoms besides your headaches, especially if you have any of the following signs that may indicate you have sleep apnea:
- Loud snoring
- Inability to focus
- Extreme daytime tiredness
- Dry mouth
- Weight gain
- Disrupted breathing at night
Ruling Out Other Disorders
Other conditions may cause morning headaches and include:
- Strained muscles in the neck
- Some medications
- Teeth grinding
- Musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
You cannot diagnose sleep apnea headache without testing for the underlying condition: sleep apnea. You usually must undergo a sleep study to diagnose the disorder and rule out other sleep disorders.
What Types of Headaches Are Associated With Sleep Apnea?
Headaches associated with OSA include:
- Cluster headaches
- Hypnic headaches
- OSA headaches
These painful headaches are characterized by frequent pain in a cluster that may last for weeks or months. Symptoms include:
- Pain behind one eye that may radiate
- One-sided headaches
- Profuse tearing of the eyes
- Redness in the affected side
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Facial paleness or flush
- Droopy eyelid
These rhythmic headaches, also known as alarm clock headaches, wake sufferers out of their sleep. It gets the name “hypnic” because it is associated with a throbbing pain that radiates on both sides of the face. Hypnic headaches may cause chronic daily pain or at least pain ten or more times a month. Some patients report symptoms similar to a migraine, such as:
- Light sensitivity
- Sound sensitivity
These headaches are because of the widening of the blood vessels. OSA-related headaches:
- Continuously recur
- Cause pain on both sides of the head
- Usually resolve when you wake up
OSA headaches can lead to chronic daily headaches since you are continually losing sleep. Losing sleep causes stress and inflammation leading to a deficit of oxygen in the blood (hypoxemia).
Treatment options for sleep apnea headaches includes:
- Lifestyle changes
- Positive airway pressure
- Oral devices
Lifestyle changes that may correct or minimize sleep apnea symptoms include:
- Refraining from sleeping on your back
- Losing weight
- Minimizing alcohol consumption
- Not drinking alcohol close to bedtime
- Treating allergies
- Refraining from taking sedatives
Positive Airway Pressure
Positive airway pressure is a form of a treatment where a machine delivers air pressure into the nose or mouth and nose to keep your airway passages open. The most common type of vehicle for positive air pressure is called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The CPAP machine prevents intermittent respiratory issues and snoring, therefore easing sleep apnea-related headaches.
Your doctor may prescribe a mouthpiece device to help correct sleep apnea issues. The mouthpiece devices keep your upper airway open by:
- Bringing your lower jaw forward
- Holding your tongue in a specific position
Surgery is a last resort and is only considered when other non-invasive treatments do not work. It may include:
- Removal of tissue or tissues causing airway obstruction
- Implanting devices to detect and correct obstruction
- Performing a tracheostomy to bypass an obstructed airway
Schedule an Appointment Today
Recurring headaches can disrupt your life, but there are answers. If you are experiencing headaches, schedule an appointment with Advanced Ear, Nose & Throat Associates in Atlanta, GA.