Sleep apnea and migraine?

Sleep apnoea
How are headaches related to sleep apnoea (apnea)?  Recently someone asked me about the relationship between sleep apnea and migraine, something that I had never looked into in depth.

Of course, it’s well known that there’s a solid relationship between cluster and sleep apnoea.  Some studies show that 80% of cluster patients may also suffer sleep apnoea.  Those with this disorder actually stop breathing repeatedly in their sleep.  The fact that it’s far more common in men than women may relate to the correlation with cluster, which is also more common in men.  (Read more about sleep apnea at the Mayo Clinic)

When it comes to migraine, we do know that sleeping problems in general can trigger attacks.  Diane Stafford and Dr Jennifer Shoquist write in Migraines for Dummies:  Too much sleep, or too little, may lead to a migraine.  Any type of off-kilter sleep (insomnia, sleep apnea, and so on) can spin off into a migraine.

A number of things may cause a relation here.  It could be the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance, as is suspected when it comes to cluster.  It could simply be interrupted sleep.  James Weintraub, neurologist and sleep disorder specialist writes:  Migraine headaches occur in direct relationship to the number of REM sleep periods that one has during the night. This relationship is even more pronounced with cluster headaches.

Migraine headaches usually occur either during or after REM sleep or in delta sleep which is the deep sleep that we all require in order to feel alert and refreshed the following day. It remains unclear whether the changes in the neurotransmitter or chemical systems in the brain, hormonal influences, or a combination of several different phenomenon are the cause.

It has also been suggested that sleep problems and migraine are both symptoms of an underlying cause, such as low magnesium levels.  However, this would probably be the exception to the rule.  Migraine attacks are very often directly related to interrupted sleep.  And that’s one thing I know from experience.

Regarding cluster and sleep apnoea, check out this article recently posted at A ClusterHead’s Life.

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6 comments… add one
  • peter Feb 21, 2009

    I always thought my migraines were sleep related..the worst ones i ever had were while on methadone,which induces a deeper sleep.But now i am off all narcotics i sleep poorly and have more frequent,but less severe migraines…i have often wondered if i have sleep apnea but my G P does not seem interested i would very much like to attend a migraine clinic.I recently took part in clinical research for migraine sufferers but once they found i had no hole in my heart they dropped me from their study.I sometimes get up to ten migraines a month.Triptans often work for me..

  • James Feb 23, 2009

    Peter: I would recommend you actually go to a sleep specialist. They’ll be able to give you the quickest and best evaluation. A night of testing may explain a lot of your migraine attacks.

    Of course, getting a good migraine specialist is also a good idea – not saying you shouldn’t do that. But if you’re interested in checking the sleep thing, a good evaluation at a sleep clinic is the way to go.

  • Cynthia Turner May 11, 2010

    I had a stroke in January and still have related problems. For the last 6 weeks I have had a migraine headache that nothing seems to relieve it. I was diagnosed with sleep apnea 2 weeks ago and was ordered a c-pap, but have been having problems obtaining one. Will the c-pap relieve the migraines or are they just saying that it will. These migraines are very often very dibilatating.

  • Stacy Nov 23, 2010

    I have had migraines since my teens. I am 39. I have had about 2-7 migraines a month since I can remember. I took every type of medications for them with no relief. I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea last November. Since having my CPAP machine which I use every night I have had only 3 migraines in total this year. Those three I must say were due to stress and perhaps knocking off the head gear of the CPAP machine. I never thought I would get relieve from my migraines. Also I am not a zombie anymore…I actually have energy and can last a day without falling asleep in mid sentence!. It took some getting use to but if I would have known years ago….I would have saved so many wasted days throwing up and in the worst pain of my life with those migraines! I haven’t lost any weight using the CPAP nor has my blood pressure dropped….but no migraines….that’s worth millions in my book!

  • Lucy Dec 31, 2012

    I’ve been a migrain sufferer for as long as I can remember. I’ve tried several medications, and treated for severe allergies. I’ve taken several medications and am currently using sumatriptan for the migrains pain and topomax as a preventative measure. It never occurred to me that my migrains could be related to my not getting enought oxagyn during my sleep. But that is what theya re recommending as well, and I am going to remain hopeful that this will help. I am 58 and really tired of my migrains and how they hinder my life.

    Happy New Year

  • Claire Apr 27, 2017

    I’ve had daily migraines/headaches for the last 4 years and I am terribly exhausted all the time. My kids make fun of me because I fall asleep anywhere and anytime I get a chance. I am petite though, average weight, and in my 30’s so no one ever suspected I had sleep apnea, until I mentioned to my dentist that I had developed hypertension too. Last week I had a sleep study, and as it turns out, I have sleep apnea, specifically during R.E.M. Tonight I get to try out the CPAP and I am so excited! I think this is the answer to all of my fatigue/migraine problems.

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