The Connection between Disordered Breathing and Migraines

September 9, 2021

Migraine is the third most common illness globally, affecting 39 million people in the US alone. Sleep-related breathing disorders are also prevalent, with an estimated one billion people suffering from obstructive sleep apnea worldwide. Some sleep experts believe that these two disorders are related, with each worsening the symptoms of the other and leading to a cycle of poor sleep and debilitating headaches.

Many people struggle to get out of bed in the morning. However, if you regularly find yourself having a difficult time getting up due to a splitting headache and excessive sleepiness, you may have a migraine or sleep-related breathing disorder. In this article, we will dive into migraines and sleep-related breathing disorders, consider the connection between the two of them, and provide you with viable treatment options.

What Are Migraine Headaches?

A migraine is a headache disorder characterized by painful throbbing in the head. On top of painful, often debilitating headaches, those with a migraine disorder may also experience the following symptoms:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Food cravings
  • Fatigue or low energy levels
  • Hyperactivity
  • Tension or pain in the neck
  • Irritability or moodiness

Some of these symptoms—such as neck stiffness, food cravings, and mood changes—may begin to manifest themselves one or two days before a migraine. This stage of migraine is referred to as the prodrome and can warn you of an oncoming headache; however, not every person will experience every stage of a migraine. For example, some people may experience what is referred to as an aura, which includes visual or sensational symptoms of the nervous system, like vision loss, visual phenomena, pins and needles sensations, or numbness in the face or body. 

Many aspects of a migraine attack vary based on the person who is experiencing them. For example, while one person may only have a migraine rarely, others may experience them several times a month. If you are concerned about your migraines, reach out to your doctor, especially if you notice any changes in your headaches.

What Are Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders?

Sleep-related breathing disorders are breathing anomalies that affect one’s ability to sleep at night. The most common and well-known of these disorders is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when someone stops breathing momentarily and repeatedly as they sleep due to a blocked airway. Signs and symptoms of OSA may include the following: 

  • Loud snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Restlessness during sleep
  • Mood disturbances
  • Headaches
  • Sudden awakenings with gasping or choking
  • Trouble concentrating or forgetfulness

Not only can sleep-related breathing disorders like OSA interrupt the quality of your sleep and leave you exhausted and ill-equipped to take on the next day, but they have also been associated with a number of chronic health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. Treating these disorders can improve your well-being beyond helping you sleep well at night—it may also improve other underlying conditions. 

How Does Disordered Breathing Relate to Migraines and Headaches?

It is estimated that 50 percent of people who wake up with headaches have a form of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may play a part in causing headaches because it traps deoxygenated air within the lungs, which is full of harmful carbon dioxide. As this carbon dioxide builds up in the bloodstream, vessels in the brain dilate, resulting in a painful headache that can take on the intensity of a migraine. 

Similarly, those who suffer from headaches have a higher risk of developing sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Those who regularly have head pain are two to eight times more likely to develop a breathing-related sleep disorder. Because most migraines occur in the early morning, around 4 am to 9 am, many people may awake due to the pain and get poorer sleep. As a result, those with a migraine disorder or sleep disorder commonly end up in a cycle of not getting enough sleep and waking with debilitating head pain. 

Will Treatment Help?

Treatment of sleep apnea or another sleep-related breathing disorder could not only improve one’s quality of sleep, but it could also lead to fewer headaches and a better overall quality of life. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, reach out to your doctor. Several sleep apnea treatment options are available, and your medical provider can help you narrow down the best treatment for you.

Your doctor may suggest one or more of the following options for treatment:

  • Positive airway pressure devices like a CPAP machine
  • Oral appliances
  • Neurostimulation therapy
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Surgical intervention or implants
  • Mandibular advancement
  • Treatment for associated medical problems

As you treat your sleep apnea, you may also see improvements in other underlying conditions such as fatigue, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

If you regularly wake up with a headache, it may be a sign of an underlying health condition like a sleep-related breathing disorder. Not only can migraines worsen your quality of life, but they can also worsen the quality of your sleep, leading to a cycle of poor sleep, exhaustion, and worse issues with breathing.