Migraines are one of the most common illnesses in the world – but despite their prevalence, many people don’t know that much about them and still ask, “Why do I wake up with a headache?” Here is everything you need to know about these intense headaches.
How Common Are Migraines?
Migraines are estimated to affect about 39 million people in the United States and as many as 1 billion people around the world. It’s most common in women (about 18%), followed by children (10%) and men (6%). Migraines are most common between the mid-twenties and the mid-fifties.
What Qualifies As A Migraine Headache?
A migraine headache involves sharp pain in the head and, in many cases, extreme sensitivity to smells, sounds, and light. Migraines may also include eye pain, nausea, vomiting, and a feeling of pounding. Most migraine headaches only occur on one side of the head, but they have been known to occur on both sides, and at times will alternate sides.
Migraines should not be confused with cluster headaches, which are identified by the way the pain occurs in cyclic patterns and creates a ‘drilling’ sensation. Similarly, they should not be confused with cervicogenic headaches, which start in the neck and typically feel similar to migraines.
Postconcussion headaches are something else entirely (although people who both get migraines and play sports should research the differences, as a postconcussion headache could be a sign of a worse medical problem).
Migraines are debilitating, and most people who have them cannot function for the duration of their headache. The headaches usually last between four hours and three days. The long potential duration means that some people find themselves waking up with headaches. They may also wake from a sleeping headache, where pain throughout the night prevents adequate rest.
Unsurprisingly, waking up with eye strain and headache symptoms does not help to improve their day.
Migraines can start at any age, and indeed, many headaches in children are thought to be migraines. If a child reports other symptoms – such as skin sensitivity to touch or a headache after waking up – you should bring them in to a doctor. A headache when waking up is a particularly bad sign since it means they won’t be able to focus in school.
For more information, you may want to refer to the ARMR, the American Registry for Migraine Research.
What Causes Migraines?
Researchers have not determined the primary cause of migraines. However, it’s thought that changes in the levels of neurotransmitters play a role in migraines. Known triggers include:
- Changes in hormone levels (including from the menstrual cycle)
- Oral contraceptives
- Particular foods
- Strong sensory stimuli (loud noises, flashing lights, etc.)
- Excessive sleep
Most people have their own triggers. If you have migraines, keep a record of each headache, including how long it lasts and what you were doing before its onset. This may help you identify your specific triggers and reduce the number of migraines you have in the future.
Some people wonder “can allergies cause headaches?” Yes, they can.
What Are Migraine Auras?
Auras are warning signs that indicate sharp pains in head areas are about to occur. Auras vary from person to person and include things from numbness to blind spots to a sensation of flashing lights. Most auras occur several minutes before the migraine starts and stop either when the headache begins or when it ends.
Migraine auras can be similar to the symptoms of a stroke. If you haven’t experienced a migraine aura before, or you experience what feels like a new aura, seek medical attention immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself to a medical facility – have someone else take you to the doctor.
Auras are not universal – only 1 in 4 people have a visual aura, and 1 in 5 have other obvious symptoms before the migraine begins.
How Often Do Migraines Occur?
Most migraines occur every 15-30 days. Notably, this can happen even if you aren’t exposed to any particular ‘triggers’ – while some patients may be able to avoid migraines completely, most cannot.
Migraines can occur more often. Several million people have chronic daily migraine, which is defined as having migraines for at least 15 days in one month. Chronic daily migraine is significantly more common in women, who experience roughly 85% of all chronic cases.
Are There Any Side-Effects Of Migraines?
Yes. Migraines – and especially chronic daily migraines – often lead to overuse of medication, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and depression. Roughly 1 in 5 cases of chronic migraine lead to some form of disability.
There are also indirect effects of migraines, such as difficulty working. This can make it harder to receive the necessary medical treatment, resulting in a downward spiral that most people have difficulty breaking out of.
Some people also find that their skin hurts to touch and that the sharp pain in back of head areas is even more distracting than frontal pain. People who woke up with a headache often look for quick solutions, and this is one of the main causes of overmedication.
How Are Migraines Treated?
Migraines are treated in several ways. Many people take over-the-counter pain relievers like naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to alleviate the effects.
Many people also use triptans, a category of drug specifically designed to treat migraines. As explained by the Mississippi Migraine Center, triptans are effective and have an excellent safety record (as far as medication goes). Only 1 in 10 patients generally report side-effects, and most of those are transient and tolerable (especially in comparison to the pain of a migraine).
However, triptans are not safe for everyone. The most common side-effects occur in the chest and heart areas, and triptans are not safe for people at high risk for strokes or heart attacks. Similarly, cardiovascular issues like coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or a history of smoking may have elevated risks when using triptans.
The American Heart Association recommends a medical screening before triptans are used. Patients with three or fewer risk factors – particularly those that can be treated – can generally use triptans. Patients with four or more factors may be able to use triptans but should be closely observed throughout the process.
Some people may benefit from treatment involving the sphenopalatine ganglion, a cluster of nerves associated with the main nerve affected by headaches. If you’re waking up with headache symptoms, ask your doctor if sphenopalatine treatment can help you.
Occipital neuralgia treatment options, like heat treatments and anti-inflammatory medications, may help treat migraines and eye strain headaches. They may also help when your skin hurts, while headache music can provide a low-cost, relaxing treatment.
Multiple treatments may be necessary. For example, pain relievers may be needed for skin painful to touch, while sleeping pills may be necessary to counteract sleeping headaches. Shooting pains in head areas – a common complaint among people who woke up with headache signs – may need stronger pain relievers.
While migraines can be treated, they cannot be cured. There is no known way to make them stop other than waiting for them to go away on their own.
What About Narcotics?
Narcotics (including drugs like cocaine and legal pain medications) should not be used as a treatment for migraines. Instead, they’re often associated with “rebound headaches,” a condition where the headache recurs once the narcotic wears off.
Worse, many narcotics are addictive. Treatment with narcotics can quickly lead to accidental addiction, especially for people with chronic daily migraines.
Are There Any Other Ways To Treat Migraines?
Yes. Changing to a healthier lifestyle may help to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks. This means:
- Remaining well-hydrated
- Exercising regularly
- Having a schedule for meals
- Getting at least 8 hours of sleep
Muscle relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, etc.) have also been observed to have a positive impact on migraines. These techniques are believed to help counteract the physical effects of stress, and in turn, that can reduce the impact of stress on migraines.
Alternative relaxation methods include aromatherapy, massages, and musical therapy. However, there are few studies examining the impact of such methods on migraines. They’re almost certainly not going to hurt you, but if you’d like to try these techniques, you should do them alongside other treatments rather than instead of them.
Some people have tried getting piercings, as a form of acupuncture, to help treat migraines. Known as “Daith piercing,” this has little observed benefit – but that hasn’t stopped the Daith piercing cost of $50-$100 from attracting people looking for a low-cost solution to migraines.
A specific form of chiropractic care can help alleviate migraines, and reduce their frequency. This is gentle, precision realignment of the craniocervical junction. Not many chiropractors are trained in this procedure, so you have to ask.
Will They Ever Stop?
Migraines tend to occur less often as people age, and may entirely stop after several years. Some research has found that migraines last for an average of 25 years, and commonly decrease after age 55. Unfortunately, some people will never see a reduction in the rate migraines occur.