July 14, 2021 6 min read

My Head Hurts When I Lay Down on My Pillow…Why?

If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “why does my head hurt when I lay down on my pillow?”, you’re probably familiar with the consequences of a rough night of rest. All it takes is one unrestful slumber and a day of grogginess to understand the importance of sleep. But achieving quality sleep is often easier said than done, especially if you get headaches while sleeping.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the common causes of headaches while sleeping, and potential reasons you may be waking up with a headache. Read on for a comprehensive overview, or use the links below to navigate to the section you’re most interested in.

Common Causes of Headaches While Sleeping

Whether you’re waking up with a headache every morning or get headaches when you lay down, you’re likely looking for relief, but trouble staying asleep may be just a surface level issue.  In order to find an effective solution for your pain—and poor sleep—it’s important to start with the source. Below, we’ll take a look at some common causes of morning and bedtime headaches

Tension headaches

Tension headaches

Tension headaches feel like someone is tightening a band around your temples, often resulting in shoulder and neck pain. These headaches are typically stress-related or anxiety-related, and can be linked to alcohol and caffeine withdrawal.

Insomnia

Insomnia

Your morning headaches may be due to insomnia. Insomniacs can have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early in the morning and not being able to return to sleep. Tension headaches and migraines may occur as a result of insomnia, which may cause you to wake up with a headache.

A lack of consistent sleep worsens sleep loss and headaches over time. Insomnia is linked to a number of other risk factors that are common among headache sufferers, such as depression, anxiety, obesity, and medication misuse. Your insomnia may also signify additional medical concerns. Speak with a doctor if sleep loss is impacting your mental and physical health.

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression

People who suffer from anxiety and depression often experience insomnia or other sleep problems, which may result in nighttime or early morning headaches. Using drugs and counseling to effectively manage depression can help enhance REM sleep and reduce the risk of insomnia and associated headaches.

Hangovers

Hangovers

Alcohol consumption can be responsible for morning headaches for a variety of reasons:

  • It suppresses REM sleep and causes you to wake frequently
  • Alcohol is a known migraine trigger
  • Too much alcohol over a period of time can result in a hangover, which can include symptoms such as headache, dizziness, dehydration, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, etc.

Wrong pillow or mattress

The wrong pillow or mattress

If you’ve ever woken up with neck pain to accompany your AM headache, your pillow or mattress may be to blame. Finding the most comfortable sleeping position  isn’t easy to do, but it can make all the difference.

When your head, neck, or back are placed in an awkward position, this can cause your muscles to become strained, sometimes resulting in a headache.

To minimize the risk of strained muscles and morning headaches, you’ll need to find the right sleeping posture for your body, which often starts with a great pillow and mattress. Here are a few things to consider as you start your search:

  • Look for a pillow that molds to the contour of your body—this helps alleviate pressure
  • Make sure your head is slightly elevated so that your neck doesn’t get strained facing downward
  • Consider using specialized sleep systems such as:

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea

During sleep, sleep apnea induces repeated, brief delays in breathing. It may cause a person's sleep pattern to be disrupted, which may cause them to wake up with headaches, or experience headaches throughout the night. Additionally, sleep apnea can result in exhaustion due to a lack of adequate rest. Loud snoring is associated with sleep apnea, although it is not necessarily a sign of the condition. Sleep apnea and snoring may be treated with the right care, so if you think you have it, see a doctor.

TMJ and Teeth Grinding

TMJ and teeth grinding

The temporomandibular joint, which attaches your jaw to your skull, plays an obvious and important role in human anatomy. If you tense the joint by clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth together while sleeping, this joint may become strained under immense pressure, resulting in a morning headache.

Teeth grinding and TMJ-related sleep issues can be remedied by wearing a nighttime mouthguard from your dentist. This device will not only make it very difficult for you to grind your teeth, but it will also help prevent pressure from building up as a result of jaw-clenching.

Dehydration

Dehydration

When you sleep, you’re not drinking water—with the exception of one or two sips—for around 6-8 hours. Because of this fast, dehydration is one of the most common sources of morning and nighttime headaches. To avoid the painful feeling of waking up with a headache, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and drink plenty of water throughout the day—the Mayo Clinic suggests drinking between 11 and 15.5 glasses of water per day.

Medication and supplements

Medications and supplements

Morning headaches are also caused by prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements. If your morning headaches get worse, it's tempting to take more pain relievers, but doing so without consulting a doctor could lead to more headaches and become dangerous to your health.

Some medications associated with morning headaches include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Prescription pain medicines, including those for chronic pain
  • Heart and blood pressure medicines
  • Birth control and hormone therapy
  • Erectile dysfunction medicines
  • Niacin

Taking medications close to bedtime can cause sleep disturbances, which can result in a headache in the morning. Caffeine withdrawal and overuse can also cause headaches; caffeine is found in many pain killers, foods, and drinks. Headaches may be relieved by stopping or lowering the dosage of such medications, however, you should always consult your doctor before ceasing or changing your regimen.

Other medical conditions

Other medical conditions

If you have morning headaches or headaches when lying down on a regular basis, it may be because of a more serious underlying issue. Take note of your symptoms as they appear, and talk to your doctor about diagnosis and treatment.

Doctor speaking to patient

When to be Concerned About Headaches While Sleeping

While they’re painful and frustrating, headaches usually aren’t something to worry about. However, you should seek immediate care if your headache is accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • trouble speaking
  • trouble seeing
  • an unusually stiff neck
  • numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • loss of balance
  • confusion
  • fainting
  • high fever

If your headaches persist or worsen, seek help from your physician for more individualized advice.

Laying awake with headache

Possible Treatment Options

Headache treatment typically depends on the type of headache you’re having and the source of the issue. Over-the-counter medications are often a sensible first step toward addressing your headaches, however, additional treatment via prescription drugs may be required.

Below, we’ll share some OTC and prescription treatment methods that may be used to help deal with headaches.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medication

OTC medications used for headache treatment include:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Acetaminophen
  • Melatonin

Prescription medication

Physicians may prescribe the following medications to manage headaches:

  • Prescription pain relievers
  • Beta-blockers
  • Triptans
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Ergots
  • Lithium
  • Corticosteroids
  • Indomethacin

Waking up with a headache is never a great way to start the day, and experiencing a headache when lying down isn’t a great way to start your sleep. Use this post as a starting point and make sure to consult your physician if your symptoms are severe or consistent.