How does sleep apnea cause migraines?

In pure central sleep apnea, the brain’s respiratory control centers are imbalanced during sleep. Some individuals have abnormalities that predispose them to central sleep apnea.

Blood levels of carbon dioxide, and the neurological feedback mechanism that monitors it does not react quickly enough to maintain an even respiratory rate, with the entire system cycling between apnea and hyperpnea, even during wakefulness. The sleeper stops breathing, and then starts again. There is no effort made to breathe during the pause in breathing: there are no chest movements and no struggling. After the episode of apnea, breathing may be faster (hyperpnea) for a period of time; a compensatory mechanism to blow off retained waste gases and absorbs more oxygen.

The classic picture of obstructive sleep apnea includes episodes of heavy snoring that begin soon after falling asleep. The snoring proceeds at a regular pace for a period of time, often becoming louder, but is then interrupted by a long silent period during which no breathing is taking place (apnea). The apnea is then interrupted by a loud snort and gasp and the snoring returns to its regular pace. This behavior recurs frequently throughout the night.

During the apneas, the oxygen level in the blood falls. Persistent low levels of oxygen may cause many of the daytime symptoms. Symptoms that may be observed include:

• Loud snoring
• Periods of not breathing (apnea)
• Awakening not rested in the morning
• Abnormal daytime sleepiness, including falling asleep at inappropriate times
• Morning headaches
• Recent weight gain
• Limited attention
• Memory loss
• Poor judgment
• Personality changes
• Lethargy

Sleep medicine is a recognized medical subspecialty. Doctors who specialize in sleep medicine help people who are unable to sleep well. Sleep doctors are able to detect and treat both common and rare sleep disorders. Some common sleep disorders are insomnia, jet lag, sleepwalking, snoring and obstructive sleep apnea.

Since headaches can be a symptom of sleep apnea, if you wake up with a headache every morning for at least two weeks, and/or notice any other of the above symptoms, it is advised to see your family doctor or a sleep specialist.

Sleep apnea can cause headaches because your body especially your brain, is not getting enough oxygen during the night.