Migraine and sleep disorders

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last review date: November 2010 | Last updated: May 2020

Migraine and sleep disorders: an introduction

Migraines often disturb sleep patterns. However, like many other migraine symptoms, it isn’t certain which strikes first: the migraines or the sleep disorder.

Some migraine sufferers complain that a change in sleeping patterns such as too little or too much can be a migraine trigger. Other times the head pain and other migraine symptoms are so severe it’s impossible to sleep after a migraine attack, while some say the only that relieves their misery is to sleep off migraines.

One study found that people with migraines complained that sometimes they fell asleep, but didn’t wake up feeling refreshed or that the migraines woke them up in the middle of the night. About one-third of the 169 migraine sufferers examined in the 2005 study had these symptoms of insomnia.

Migraines and sleep disorders are both made worse by other stressors, such as school and work issues. These problems, which may cause trouble sleeping, are also considered migraine triggers, which make the original source difficult to determine at times.

Also other ailments, such as bronchitis, snoring and sleep apnea, often hamper sleep which could lead to a migraine. In fact, head pain in the morning is a sign of sleep apnea and one 2005 study reported that more than 30 percent of patients with recurring head pain and other sleep apnea symptoms saw their head pain diminish after the sleep apnea was treated. Another 2005 study of 1,283 migraine sufferers found that more than half had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep sometimes. In that study, 38 percent slept an average of six hours nightly and half of the study subjects said that sleep disturbances triggered migraines.

Children with migraines had a higher incidence of sleep disturbances during their infant years according to a 1997 study. More children migraine sufferers had colic as infants and currently had night awakening, daytime sleepiness and other sleep disturbances.

Migraine and serotonin

Another theory regarding how migraine and sleep are related points to the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycle among other operations in the brain. Some people with migraines find relief with serotonin agonists, migraine treatments that act like serotonin. Light and darkness influence how much serotonin is produced, therefore it may play a role in seasonal migraines as well as the migraine symptom sensitivity to light.

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