The Hypnic Headache and How to Treat It

Hypnic Headache

A restful, uninterrupted night’s sleep is important to your health and well-being. It helps you wake up refreshed and ready for the day ahead. Unfortunately, many issues such as nightmares, restless leg syndrome and insomnia can disrupt your nighttime routine. But what if a bad headache was the cause of your interrupted sleep – one so painful that it wakes you from a sound slumber?

Called the “alarm clock” headache – for appropriate reasons – the hypnic headache is a headache syndrome that startles its sufferers out of restful sleep and turns their night into restless pain.


The hypnic headache is a frequently recurring headache disorder that develops while a person sleeps. The pain causes wakening and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 4 hours. Most people who suffer from these headaches have persistent, almost daily episodes but, for some, they occur around 10 to 15 times a month. A unique feature of the hypnic headache is that it tends to happen at the same time each night – between 1:00am and 3:00am.


For most sufferers, the hypnic headache begins abruptly, with all-over throbbing pain. Victims describe the pain like that of a migraine but, unlike a migraine, sufferers are restless and don’t want to lie still in bed. The hypnic headache may also be accompanied by a stuffy nose, watery eyes, sensitivity to light and sound and nausea.


The hypnic headache affects more women than men, in fact about 84% of the reported cases were female. The average age of a hypnic headache sufferer is 60, with an overall range of 40 to 75 years of age. As most of the sufferers are older women, there may be a correlation between hypnic headaches and menopause. More than one third of the victims complained of previous, hormone-related migraines when they were younger.


Your doctor will want to rule out other possible diagnoses (such as another primary headache disorder, brain injury, tumor or sleep apnea) and discuss your sleep patterns and habits with you. Your doctor may then suggest testing, such as:

  • Bloodwork
  • Sleep studies
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan – where a series of x-rays are taken from different angles to show a more complete picture of your brain.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – where powerful magnets and radio waves are used to create detailed images of your brain.

If your symptoms match those of a typical hypnic headache and your doctor can’t find any other reasons for them, the next step will be finding the appropriate treatment. Usually, the first treatment recommended will be caffeine – either in pill form or from a standard cup of strong coffee. Taken before bed, it has shown to be an effective remedy for hypnic headache syndrome. If caffeine won’t relieve your symptoms, other options may include:

  • Indomethacin – a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).
  • Lithium carbonate – a mood-stabilizing drug used to treat bi-polar disorder and cluster headaches.
  • Migraine medications such as Frovatriptan, Sumatriptan or Ergotamine.
  • Atenolol – a beta blocker.
  • Flunarizine – a calcium channel blocker.
  • Lamotrigine – a seizure medication.
  • Prednisone – a steroid.
  • Melatonin – naturally produced by the pineal gland, it plays a role in regulating circadian rhythms. The body’s release of melatonin may be impaired with age, so it is believed that supplementing with it may help relieve hypnic headaches.

An important thing to know about a hypnic headache is that it is a harmless condition and, even though long-term treatment may be necessary, there is a good prognosis with no serious complications reported.

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