I am awakened by nighttime headaches. What should I do?

Answers from Jerry W. Swanson, M.D.

If you have nighttime headaches or headaches that awaken you from sleep, see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Treatment for nighttime headaches varies, depending on the type of headache and any underlying causes.

Common headache types such as cluster headaches and migraines may occur during sleep or at night in some people. Treatment for these headaches depends on their frequency and severity and may include medications to treat the headache itself as well as prevent future episodes.

Other people may experience "alarm clock" (hypnic) headaches, which solely begin during sleep. Hypnic headaches are rare and occur most commonly after age 50.

Hypnic headaches usually awaken a person at the same time every night, but it's also possible to have daytime naps interrupted by hypnic headaches.

Possible treatments

The exact cause of hypnic headaches isn't known, but treatments that may provide relief for some individuals include:

  • Lithium (Lithobid) — a medication used to treat bipolar disorder
  • Indomethacin (Indocin) — a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication
  • Caffeine — taken as a tablet or beverage before bedtime

There are reports of small numbers of people whose headaches respond to other agents.

Oct. 26, 2016 See more Expert Answers