Can you have a headache from lack of sleep?

Getting enough, good quality sleep can help prevent and treat headaches. Various studies have linked lack of sleep to different types of headaches.

Getting enough sleep is an integral part of good health. When a person sleeps, their body repairs itself, helping the body and brain to function optimally. Without this rest, a person can experience health problems including headaches.

Keep reading to learn more about the link between headaches and lack of sleep. We also discuss the other effects of not getting enough sleep and give some tips for getting the best sleep possible.

Not getting enough sleep can cause headaches in the short term, but it won’t cause chronic headaches in people without this condition. Researchers have linked sleep to headaches in various ways, with the connection appearing to be both ways.

paradoxical sleep

Studies suggest that a lack of REM sleep is associated with more painful headaches. The authors of a review article found that a lack of sleep increases the proteins in the body that contribute to chronic pain. These proteins can reduce the body’s ability to resist pain and trigger migraines.

REM sleep begins in about 90 minutes falling asleep and quickly moving the eyes from side to side behind closed eyelids.

During REM sleep, a person’s breathing becomes faster and more regular, and their heart rate and blood pressure increase to levels similar to those when awake. Mixed frequency brain activity also approximates the activity levels that occur when a person is awake.

It is possible that deficits at other stages of the sleep cycle also contribute to headaches and other types of pain.

Learn more about the stages of sleep here.

Sleep cycle and headaches

Research 2017 have found that sleep problems can trigger tension headaches and migraine episodes, and that headaches can, in turn, lead to sleep disturbances. The reason is that sleep and headaches share common brain structures and mechanisms.

Research also indicates a link between headaches, sleep disturbances and depression, suggesting that depression lowers a person’s pain threshold.

Learn more about headaches and depression here.

Reduced pain threshold

Not getting enough sleep can reduce the body’s ability to resist pain. Research found that people with insomnia and other sleep problems may have a lower pain threshold than those without sleep disorders. This lower pain tolerance can lead to more painful headaches from lack of sleep.

Snoring and sleep apnea

If a person snores regularly, they may be at a higher risk for chronic headaches. Snoring is one of the main symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes temporary pauses in breathing during sleep.

Sleep apnea disrupts sleep and often causes people to wake up with a headache and not feel rested. Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • pauses in breathing
  • to wake up
  • need to urinate at night
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • sweat during the night

Learn more about sleep apnea here.

However, not all people who snore have obstructive sleep apnea. Snoring that results from other problems, such as allergies or congestion, is also linked to headaches.

Teeth grinding

A person may experience a dull, constant headache and jaw pain when grinding their teeth while sleeping. Frequent teeth grinding is called bruxism, and it can be a symptom of poor sleep and excessive stress. However, bruxism itself does not cause sleep deprivation.

Learn more about bruxism here.

A lack of sleep can adversely affect a person’s physical and mental health. The effects of not getting enough sleep can understand an increased risk of:

  • gloomy mood
  • low productivity levels
  • motor vehicle accident
  • brain fog
  • wounds

In the long term, medical problems can develop, such as:

A person’s sleep needs change with age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend:

  • 4-12 months: 12 to 16 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 1-2 years: 11 to 14 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 3-5 years: 10 to 13 hours of sleep per 24 hours, including naps
  • 6-12 years old: 9 to 12 hours of sleep per 24 hours
  • 13-18 years old: 8 to 10 hours of sleep per 24 hours
  • 18-60 years old: 7 hours or more per night

Research has linked migraines and tension headaches with a lack of sleep. Getting immediate treatment for either type of headache can help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.

Migraine headache

A person may be able to treat a migraine with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications, such as:

Other options include prescription drugs such as triptans. These drugs can help reverse changes in the brain that cause migraine episodes. The types include:

During a migraine episode, it can help a person lie down or sleep in a dark room.

Tension headache

A person may experience tension headaches in the form of mild or moderate pain that looks like a tightening or pressure on one or both sides of the head. Tension headaches also often cause pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders. Treatment may include:

  • 0TC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • tricyclic antidepressants to prevent recurrence of tension headaches
  • prescription drugs for pain relief
  • stress management
  • acupuncture
  • massage

According to CDC, a person can take steps to improve their sleep. These include:

  • going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, including weekends
  • removing electronic devices, such as televisions, phones, and computers, from the bedroom
  • quit smoking, if applicable
  • make sure the room is dark, at a comfortable and calm temperature
  • avoiding caffeine, large meals, and alcohol before bed
  • exercise and be physically active during the day

Lack of sleep can cause headaches by disrupting REM sleep or other stages of sleep and by producing proteins that trigger migraines, lowering a person’s pain threshold to resist headaches. Sleep apnea and teeth grinding are other possible causes of headaches.

Limited and prolonged sleep can have long-term effects, including a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and other conditions.

The optimal amount of sleep varies with age. For most adults, it is 7 or more hours per 24 hours.

A person can treat or prevent sleep deprivation headaches by using over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, acupuncture, and massage. They can also take steps to improve their sleep hygiene.


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