Morning Headaches

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015.

Are morning headaches a common symptom of COPD?1

Morning headaches are a symptom of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for many people living with the condition. These can happen for anyone who has COPD, but morning headaches tends to occur more often for:

  • COPD patients who have a later stage of the disease
  • COPD patients who receive oxygen therapy during the night

Many patients describe these headaches as a dull and throbbing pain that is already present first thing in the morning when they wake up.

What causes people with COPD to have morning headaches?1,2,3

There are several reasons that people with COPD might have morning headaches:

  • Having too much carbon dioxide in the blood
  • Having too little oxygen in the blood
  • Having too much oxygen in the blood

The first two reasons are directly caused by the lung damage that people with COPD have. The third reason affects people with COPD who have nighttime oxygen therapy while they sleep.

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How can COPD cause morning headaches?1,2,3

The main functions of the lungs are:

  • Breathing in to absorb oxygen from the air and into the bloodstream
  • Removing carbon dioxide from the bloodstream and breathing it out of the body

Oxygen is a gas that provides fuel for the body’s processes. The body needs a regular supply of oxygen to function well. Carbon dioxide is also a gas, and is the waste product of the body’s processes. It needs to be removed from the body so it does not build up and cause problems.

People with COPD have lung damage from chronic bronchitis and emphysema that keeps the lungs from being able to function as well as they should. These problems with airflow can cause nighttime headaches.

COPD can cause the airways to become partly blocked due to swelling and excess mucus. This means that while they sleep, their lungs are not able to take in enough air in order to absorb enough oxygen. COPD also causes lung damage that makes it hard for the lungs to breathe out well enough to remove enough of the carbon dioxide from their bodies.

During the night, these two breathing problems can combine to make a person have blood with too little oxygen and too much carbon dioxide. When this kind of blood gets to the brain, it causes a reaction in the blood vessels there. They get much wider, because they need more oxygen. This reaction of the blood vessels is what causes the headache.

How can nighttime oxygen therapy cause morning headaches?4

Some people with COPD need to have oxygen therapy during the night. This means that they receive small amounts oxygen constantly through a mask over their nose and face or a small tube in the nostrils. If the amount of oxygen that the person is getting overnight is slightly too high, then this can cause a headache in the morning.

Are there ways to prevent morning headaches?3,4

If the morning headaches are due to oxygen therapy, then having a healthcare provider adjust the amount of oxygen the person receives during the night can usually solve the problem.

If the morning headaches are the result of nighttime breathing problems caused by COPD, there are ways to manage the headaches by improving the person’s nighttime airflow. Some treatments that may help include:

  • Using prescribed COPD medicines to help reduce swelling in the airways
  • Using the right kind of pillow to keep the head in the best position for breathing
  • Exercising to improve overall lung function
  • Not smoking