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Do you keep being woken up in the night by a painful headache?

If sudden pains in any part of your head are stirring you from your sleep, you could be experiencing a hypnic headache.

Unlike other types of headaches, these are specifically characterized by the fact that they only occur when you are asleep.

Naturally, the disturbance can cause sleepless nights and affect the next day ahead of you.

Be sure to read on to find out if this sounds like what you might be suffering from. We will also help you to understand what might be causing the ailment, and how you can best treat the symptoms.

What is a Hypnic Headache?

As we mentioned, these ailments are characterized by their appearance only at night time. It is also the reason why they are termed an ‘alarm clock headache’, as these headaches occur while you are sleeping and can wake you up.

They can be felt either all over your head or localized on one side or spot. Category-wise, they fall under a primary headache, which means they are not linked to any other health issues and occur on their own.

Typically they crop up at the same time each night and can last for anywhere between 15 minutes to 4 hours. Unfortunately, they can be a fairly regular occurrence. Some suffers have reported having experienced the condition more than 10 times a month.

Even though they occur only during sleep, for reasons yet unknown, they do not occur during daytime naps. Instead, symptoms are commonly only experienced in the early hours of the morning, between 1 and 3 am.

Overall, they are pretty rare to experience. Women over 50 years old are much more likely to experience them than men. The reasons for this are not fully known.

Of course, other common headache types occur at all times of the day and night. So, when making a self-diagnosis, be sure to eliminate the various possibilities first.

What are the Symptoms?

The condition is relatively simple when it comes to symptoms. This is because, aside from the pain experienced, not many other symptoms present at the same time. The normal symptoms tend to be that of an ordinary headache, except they occur at night time.

  • A pain in the head – this will wake the person up and can be felt on all sides of the head or one area
  • Pain and throbbing can range from mild to severe and can last 15 to 180 minutes long
  • Sensitivity to light – a bit like migraines, you may want to be in a dark room as bright artificial lights or daylight are unbearable
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Feeling sick or nauseous

Some Possible Causes of the Condition

As it’s a primary condition or disorder, this ailment isn’t a sign of an underlying health issue. It’s simply a stand-alone issue by itself. This makes it a little more difficult to understand what may be causing it to occur though.

Doctors are currently not sure about what causes a hypnic headache, but there has been some research into them. Some of this research suggests that the following points may be factors in determining the occurrence of the condition in sufferers:

Sleeping position

Do you sleep in difficult positions? A poor sleeping posture can cause neck pain which in turn leads to tension in the spine. When the spine is out of place, this can cause a headache to occur.

Not getting enough sleep

Do you get enough zzz’s each night, or even too much? Migraines, as a neurological condition, are proven to be related to imbalances in your brain chemicals that can be impacted by too much or not enough sleep. That means that sleep deprivation, as well as too many lie-ins or late nights, could be a problem. Making sure you get the right amount could help you relieve the occurrence of this condition.

Sleep Stages

Commonly known as REM, Rapid Eye Movement is a type of sleep within your sleep cycle which may be linked to the ailment.

Diagnosis

How do you know you are suffering from a hypnic headache?

To ensure that you are not suffering from any other underlying health issues such as a brain tumor, sleep apnoea, blood pressure issues, or night time seizures, you should always see your doctor. Allow them to diagnose you medically with this condition, and rule out any other issues that may be causing your pain.

You can expect your General Practitioner to ask you details about how you sleep and your sleeping patterns. For example, do you sleep well? Or are you restless at night times whilst sleeping? And do you often snore?

They will then most probably conduct some or all of the following tests and studies for you:

  • Blood tests
  • Sleep studies
  • CT scans – otherwise and formally known as a Computerised Tomography scan that uses X rays to show brain detail
  • MRI scans- properly known as Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans. These also look at your brain but use radio waves to do it.

These tests and conversations with your doctor should be enough for them and you to ascertain whether you are suffering from the condition. Keeping your headache diary up to date to take along to your appointment will help here.

You can them receive the appropriate treatment or medication to help you.

Treating Hypnic Headaches

Most things prescribed for hypnic headache treatment are the same as those that are given for anyone suffering from other more common types of the condition, such as migraines and cluster headaches.

If your doctor has diagnosed you with hypnic headache syndrome and you are sure there are no other underlying health issues, normal over the counter pain killers may help to alleviate the pain and discomfort you feel.

Other common medications such as aspirin, various brands of migraine-specific medications, and beta-blockers (if prescribed by your doctor) can be used to treat it as well.

To prevent the headaches happening in the first place, your doctor may prescribe more specific measures and treatment advice. Some of them are more commonly used for treating brain chemical imbalances but have been shown to help sufferers of a hypnic headache too.

Here are a few of some of the commonly used medications or treatment advice that could be prescribed:

Doses of caffeine before bed

Even though it may sound counter-intuitive for a restful night’s sleep, this is actually one of the most commonly prescribed treatments. Claims are that having a dose of caffeine before bedtime won’t affect sleep as much as we might think.

Your doctor may simply ask you to have a normal, everyday cup of coffee before bed. Alternatively, they will prescribe caffeine pills to you instead. Read this study here to find out more about how they can help.

Lithium carbonate

This medication usually comes in tablet form and is prescribed to help balance the mood by restoring brain chemicals (neurotransmitters). However, it is also sometimes prescribed by a health professional for headaches. Those with thyroid or kidney issues should use this treatment with caution.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone normally secreted by your brain when it gets dark to help you feel sleepy before bed. In sunlight or bright environments, your body doesn’t produce it.

Some studies have shown that those suffering from chronic headaches or migraines produce lower levels. This, in turn, may link melatonin levels as a cause of a hypnic headache. Taking dietary supplements can help to balance these levels.

Flunarizine

This drug was initially given to improve blood flow. Nowadays it is commonly prescribed to help reduce vertigo, the occurrence of migraines, as well as dizziness. It is what is known as a ‘calcium channel blocker’. This means it acts to relax blood vessels and increase blood and oxygen supply to the heart.

Indometacin

This is a non- steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which works by helping to reduce inflammation in a specific area. With targeted results, it will, therefore, reduce your pain.

Topiramate

A bit like the lithium carbonate, topiramate is often used to treat mood disorders such as bipolar disorder. It is prescribed to be taken in daily doses as a preventative measure and has helped sufferers in the past.

Again, this wouldn’t be prescribed to anyone with kidney or heart issues.

Summary

To treat a hypnic headache properly, you have to know if you are suffering from one. Most prone to them are women nearing or over 50 years. A look at the straight forward symptoms should give you a better idea.

They are easy to diagnose, mainly because you will go to bed feeling no pain and then be woken up by it on several occasions. Who knows, the solution to stop your suffering could be as simple as a regular cup of coffee before you go to sleep each night.

Make sure you see your doctor for medical advice on the matter. In the meantime, ensure you are taking the right preventative measures such as getting enough sleep and drinking enough water.