Can Sleep Apnea Cause Headaches? Sleep Lab for Chronic Headaches

Might the horrendous “gasping for air” sound sleep apnea sufferers make cause headaches? If this description fits your night, maybe it’s time to visit a sleep lab.

The brain is a very sensitive organ.  Bombard it with toxic chemicals from the environment, deprive it of fuel or stress it out and it’s not going to be happy with you.

The same goes for oxygen.  Decrease oxygen supply to the brain cells, even by the smallest amount, and you can trigger a headache. 

“But how?” you ask.

When it comes to keeping our brain cells happy and healthy one of the factors that plays a critical role is the ability to carry oxygen to our brains. If the brain doesn’t have enough oxygen, our mitochondria won’t be able to produce the energy (in the form of ATP) that we need, and the brain is not able to function the way it is supposed to.

So, any drop in the ability to deliver oxygen to the brain can create problems. This is exactly the state that many women experience in the second half of their menstrual cycles as the lining of the endometrium begins to build, removing red blood cells from circulation and reducing the ability of the blood to bring oxygen to the brain.

This can be a very subtle drop in red blood cell level, but given how sensitive the brain is to changes in oxygen levels, that can be enough to trigger a menstrual migraine in women who are already sensitive.

While we’re on the subject of reducing oxygen delivery to the brain, what about sleep apnea?

Ask anyone who’s slept next to someone with sleep apnea and they will tell you that it can be a scary experience.  The person can stop breathing many times per hour, leaving the other person in the bed unable to sleep, constantly ready to dial 911 if the breathing doesn’t resume this time…

This is a monumentally bad situation for our health.  And this is on top of the fact that most cases of central sleep apnea are caused by being prediabetic, which carries its own risk to our health.

Clearly this sleep apnea will both stress the body out as well as deprive the brain of oxygen.  As mentioned, this drop in oxygen is not received nicely by the neurons, as we can see from this particular study.

Researchers looked at a group of chronic head sufferers (chronic migraine without aura, episodic migraine without aura, migraine with aura, tension-type headache, chronic post-traumatic headache, medication overuse headache) and identified how many of these experienced sleep apnea.  Here are the findings:

  1. All patients were receiving standard treatment for their headaches by their neurologist.
  2. 63% of the chronic headache sufferers had obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
  3. Of the patients with OSA, 63% used CPAP and 82% of these used the CPAP as prescribed.
  4. 49% of this group of patients had a positive response to therapy (meds or CPAP)
  5. Patients with OSA who using the CPAP were more likely to have improvement in headaches
  6. Of the 33 patients who used CPAP, 13 reported improvement in headaches specifically due to CPAP therapy.

Overall, this is some pretty strong stuff and would suggest that every chronic headache sufferer should be evaluated at a sleep lab for sleep apnea.  This is, of course, in addition to lifestyle changes designed to improve brain health.

If you use a CPAP and have suffered with chronic headaches, did using the CPAP help your headaches?


James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.