Sleep Apnea and Migraines: Is There a Connection?

Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is a common sleeping disorder that affects countless millions of people across the globe. Among the most common symptoms of OSA is snoring which, in itself, can trigger a morning headache. 

This is not a typical side effect of obstructive sleep apnea -- but does occur often enough for sleep researchers to conclude that OSA is a contributory factor and this is most prevalent among OSA sufferers who also suffer with migraine.

Despite extensive recent research, experts are still undecided as to whether OSA triggers the morning migraine headache -- or if the migraine exacerbates the sleep apnea. 

One thing is certain, however, there is a definite connection between the two conditions.

Disturbed Sleep

It has been long established that sleep (or the lack of it) has a direct relationship with migraine attacks. A lack of quality sleep, or regularly disturbed sleep, can trigger headaches. Sleep disturbances are many and encompass:


Broken sleep

Trouble falling asleep

Difficulty staying asleep

Lack of sleeping time

Persistent early awakening

Sleeping disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, have demonstrably been shown to lead to more frequent headaches and migraines and are also believed to increase the likelihood of the migraines transforming from episodic (under 15 attacks per month) to chronic (over 15 per month).

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Link

OSA causes the breathing to stop momentarily as the air passage becomes blocked by tissues and muscles in the throat. This results in the sufferer briefly awakening as the body reacts to the lack of oxygen -- and an interrupted night's sleep is the end result.

Snoring is a well-known symptom of OSA, but headaches are also frequently reported. This is particularly true of those who suffer from migraines. 

Studies conducted on children and adults have concluded that those with snoring, sleeping and breathing difficulties are more prone to headache and migraine.

While OSA is a contributory factor in the frequency and severity of both headaches and migraines the reverse does not seem to be true as migraineurs (people suffering from migraines) are no more prone to developing OSA than anyone else. 

This may be because migraineurs are more sensitive to pain and react badly to the shortage of oxygen taken in during sleep. However, a study conducted in 2018 found that people with chronic migraines reported poor quality of sleep -- and were deemed to be at an increased risk of developing OSA.

Treatment Options

It is estimated that migraineurs are as much as eight times more likely to have, or develop, some form of sleeping disorder in comparison to the general population. Insomnia is a common complaint for most migraineurs as are broken sleep patterns and difficulty falling asleep.

These are also possible symptoms of OSA and need to be checked by a sleep expert to determine the exact underlying cause or causes. 

Migraine and OSA are different disorders and the treatments available for both are different. 

If the two conditions are directly connected and OSA is the primary factor then the proper treatment is required. Treatment for OSA will not only relieve the effects of OSA but can also potentially and dramatically reduce the frequency and severity of sleep apnea migraine.

The first and most important step in treating OSA or migraines is to determine the causes of the conditions. This will necessitate consulting a doctor or health professional in the case of migraines or a sleep specialist if disrupted sleep is the issue.

If a medical condition is at the heart of the problem, this will need to be treated accordingly while sleep apnea sufferers may require specialized treatment such as the use of a Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) device. PAP therapy works by delivering a stream of air under constant pressure to the patient via a compressor, tubing and a face or nose mask. The pressurized air effectively forces the air passage to remain open during sleep thus avoiding the constant awakenings that beset OSA sufferers.

Simple Solution

Medical intervention or PAP therapy is not always required as there is often a simple solution to both of these issues. Quality sleep is essential and all that may be required is a change in sleeping habits. Experts agree on many steps that can be easily taken to promote better quality sleep and these include:

Establishing a set time period for sleep

Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine products which impair sleep

Following a healthy, balanced diet

Exercising regularly

Making simple changes to lifestyle and the bedtime routine is easily achievable with a little will power but the changes they make to overall health and physical well-being are immeasurable. 

Failure to make the necessary changes will only ensure the problems continue and worsen making both the migraines and OSA harder to treat and control.

Once migraines or sleep disorders become established there is a direct impact on the quality of life, not just sleep. 

Taking action sooner rather than later is strongly advisable as treatment and cure is always easier in the earliest stages of any physical ailment and far more effective than reacting too late. Unfortunately, too many people seem to believe that any physical problem will simply cure itself in time but this is a fallacy that will only lead to more unnecessary pain and suffering.