Are My Migraines Just Sleep Apnea Symptoms?


It has long been accepted that sleep disorders and migraines are closely related. Migraines can influence lack of sleep and just the same, lack of sleep can trigger a migraine, making the presence of a sleep disorder difficult to identify. 

One of the most common sleep disorders associated with migraines is obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially life threatening condition. Read on to learn about the characteristics of a migraine caused by sleep apnea to rule in or out – what might be influencing your symptoms.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious, chronic sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing patterns during sleep. Apnea patients frequently stop breathing up to 30 times or more per hour for a few seconds or a few minutes. The pauses are generally accompanied by snoring, choking or gasping for air and result in low oxygen levels in the brain and body that can influence a number of symptoms and side effects including:

  • Memory or learning problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Frequent urination at night
  • Dry mouth or sore throat
  • Sleepiness
  • Morning headaches


Pauses in breathing occur when the patient’s airway collapses and hinders air from reaching the lungs. This can result from excess tissue in the back of the airway, like large tonsils or ones tongue falling back and blocking the airway.

Over 12 million people suffer from the condition, which affects 4% of all middle-aged men and 2% of middle-aged women – similar percentages to adult asthma. Yet, most individuals with sleep apnea remain undiagnosed and untreated. This could be due to the fact that the condition can presents as other conditions, like migraines.

Migraines & Sleep Apnea

According to one study, migraine severity (in association with sleep apnea) is directly related to the severity of the sleep disorder. If sleep apnea is presenting as a morning migraine, the sleep condition is likely acute.

Migraines from sleep apnea are presumably caused by changes within the bloodstream due to lack of oxygenation during sleep. As a result, carbon dioxide remains trapped in the lungs, elevating carbon dioxide levels in the body and this, according to one theory, is what triggers a migraine.

Carbon dioxide causes blood vessels located around the head to dilate, restricting blood flow and causing throbbing pain. Note the similarity between sleep apnea related migraine progression and stand-alone migraine progression. Both cases are believed to involve blood vessel dilation and restricted blood flow to the brain.

You may also be interested in: Discover The Ultimate Migraine Trigger that You Might Not Know About

Characteristics of a Sleep Apnea Migraine

Sleep apnea related migraines generally rear in the morning upon waking and are short in duration. Throbbing pain is commonly experienced on both sides of the head or bifrontally, above the eyebrows and episodes can occur several times a month, even daily in severe cases. Typically, no other migraine-like symptoms are experienced.

Once the body restores oxygen and carbon dioxide to healthy levels, symptoms begin to lessen (usually within one to two hours).


Upon meeting with your doctor, a clinical polysomnogram (CPSG) test will determine whether sleep apnea or another sleep disorders are present. During this test, sleep stages will be closely monitored to identify token behaviors associated with sleep disorders.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP), which involves a pneumatic splint that prevents the airway from collapsing. In less severe cases, patients may be fitted with a mouthpiece that adjusts the lower jaw and keeps your tongue from blocking their airwave. In severe cases, when all other forms of treatment fail, surgical intervention can be performed to remove excess tissue blocking the airway.

If you suspect that migraine pain could be the result of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea, contact your physician and schedule an appointment right away. Sleep apnea can be life threatening and proper treatment may drastically reduce or eliminate migraine pain and restore your quality of life.

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Image Source: Theophilos Papadopoulos

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