Can Pillows Cause Headaches?

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While headaches are common, they aren’t considered “normal.” According to the World Health Organization, almost everyone gets an occasional headache, but only one in twenty adults suffer from headaches nearly every day. If that sounds like you, you’re probably looking for a fix.

Many internal and environmental elements contribute to the onset of both sporadic and chronic headaches. But with bedrooms considered a haven for rest and rejuvenation, there might be components of your bed setup that could make you more susceptible to headaches.

Can pillows cause headaches? Read on to find out!

The 6 Most Common Types of Headaches

Below, I’ll go into detail about the six most common types of headaches and their symptoms. While this section might be able to help you identify your headaches if you’re having them infrequently, remember that it is no substitute for a doctor’s advice. If you’re suffering from frequent or severe headaches, you should visit your doctor. 

For a basic overview on all the different types of headaches, check out this National Headache Foundation chart.

Cluster Headache

If your headache manifests as sharp pain near your eye, tearing eyes, congestion, and possibly a flushed face, you likely have a cluster headache. Cluster headaches are characterized by severe pain and may last for several hours. Most people with cluster headaches will have “attacks,” and get headaches every day for several weeks or months. Often, these headaches will develop overnight, and might actually wake you up.

Cluster headaches are rare, and only affect about 1 of 1,000 people. Men between 20 to 50 who smoke are most likely to have cluster headaches. Take a look at this article from the Cleveland Clinic to learn more about this type of headache.

Tension Headache

Tension headaches are characterized by a dull, steady ache on both sides of the head. You might also feel tightness in the back of your head or neck. These headaches often appear slowly and involve mild to moderate pain. It’s not clear what exactly causes tension headaches, but stress and tightness in the neck muscles are considered key factors. This is the most common type of headache, and up to 2 out of 3 adults may suffer from them. Check out this article from Johns Hopkins Medicine to learn more.

Sinus Headache

If you have pain in the nasal area that gets worse throughout the day, you might have a sinus headache. These headaches are rare, and caused by blocked sinus ducts. You’ll feel throbbing pressure around your eyes, cheeks, and forehead. Often, this type of pain is similar to that caused by a migraine.

These headaches normally last days, up until your sinuses clear. You’re likely to get them if you have a sinus infection. Allergies might also cause a sinus headache. This makes sinus headaches fairly common. You can learn more about sinus headaches on this Mayo Clinic page.

Migraine Headache

About 12% of people suffer from migraines. They involve debilitating, throbbing pain and may get worse with movement, light, and loud noise. Other common migraine symptoms are feeling dizzy, vomiting, and feeling very warm or cold. Migraines most often last for several hours, but they can last for days. These headaches often involve four stages: a prodrome, or pre-headache phase; an aura phase that lasts for up to an hour; a headache stage; and a postdrome stage that feels a bit like a hangover.

You may get a migraine with or without an aura. An aura is a group of sensory signals that warn you a migraine is about to begin. It involves seeing bright lights or dots, blind spots in your vision, numbness or tingling, ringing ears, speech changes, or even changes in smell or taste. There are several different types of migraines, which you can learn about here.

Thunderclap Headache

A thunderclap headache involves very sudden, very severe pain. It is often characterized as the worst headache of a sufferer’s life. It might also involve vomiting, fever, speech problems, weakness, confusion, and visual symptoms. These headaches usually fade in a few hours, and feel most severe in the first minute of onset.

If you experience a thunderclap headache you should go to the doctor right away. These headaches are often symptoms of a more serious issue like a brain aneurysm or hemorrhage. They may also be caused by something more benign (for instance, some people experience thunderclap headaches after orgasming). But it is extremely important to get diagnosed as soon as possible after a thunderclap headache. Learn more about thunderclap headaches here.

COVID Headache

Headaches are a very common symptom of COVID-19. But they are also a common symptom of long COVID. Long COVID headaches are normally an intermittent or daily headache that started after a COVID-19 infection. They often feel like tension headaches, but could feel more like migraines. There is not a lot known about treatment of these headaches at this time, but studies are ongoing. You can check out this current study for more information if you think you may suffer from COVID headaches.

5 Ways Pillows Can Cause Headaches

Certain headaches, especially tension headaches or sinus headaches, may be caused by your pillow. A pillow that offers proper neck support is very important for avoiding headaches (as well as neck and back pain). It’s also important to sleep on a clean pillow that doesn’t activate any allergy symptoms. Read on below to learn more about how your pillow might be causing a headache. And check out our 3 ways your pillow affects your health article to learn more about how important it is to use a good pillow.

Wrong Pillow for Your Sleeping Position

Each sleeping position requires a specific pillow to hold the spine in a neutral position. This will help you avoid the chiropractor, and help you avoid headaches caused by tension in your neck muscles. It may also help you avoid headaches caused by lack of sleep, since a comfortable pillow will help you get more restful sleep. I’ve listed the best pillow for each sleeping position below.

  • Stomach sleepers should sleep on flat, soft pillows. A pillow that is too high or firm will curve their neck up at night. This will throw off their spinal alignment and could lead to headaches and pain.
  • Side sleepers should sleep on lofty, supportive pillows. They need a thick pillow that keeps pressure off their shoulders and prevents their head and neck from sinking below their shoulders to maintain proper sleep posture.
  • Back sleepers should use medium loft pillows that offer good support. A pillow that conforms to their head and neck is usually a good choice for these sleepers. They may want to consider a cervical pillow if they struggle with headaches. 
  • Combination sleepers need to consider what positions they rotate between when choosing the best pillow for their needs. Our best pillows of 2022 for every type of sleeper roundup can help them choose a good pillow for their needs.

Improper Support

If your pillow offers improper support you might wake up with a tension headache. A pillow that does not hold your head and neck in a neutral alignment with your spine can lead to neck pain and headaches. You’ll want to consider your pillow’s loft and firmness when determining if it is offering you proper support. If you sleep on your stomach you’ll need a soft pillow with a low loft. If you sleep on your side you’ll need a firm pillow with a high loft. Back sleepers should be somewhere in the middle to get a good night’s sleep.

Our can pillows cause neck pain article explains these issues in greater detail.

Allergies to Pillow Fill

If you’re allergic to your pillow fill you might wake up with a sinus headache. You may be allergic to allergens like dust mites in your bedding, or you may just be allergic to the specific fill used in your pillows. When deciding if allergy-proof bedding is worth considering you’ll want to reflect on whether or not you’re waking up with clogged sinuses or a sore throat. In addition to leading to a sinus headache, these symptoms could also lead to poor sleep quality and cause tension headaches.

If you suffer from allergies, consider using pillow protectors and opting for machine-washable pillows that you can clean often.

Pillow is Too Old

If your pillow is too old it may no longer be supportive or have built up allergens and dirt. An old pillow can lead to pain in the neck, shoulders, and lower back, as well as to allergies and headaches. A good way to wake up pain-free is replacing a worn-out pillow with a new one. How often should you replace pillows? A good rule of thumb is that you should get a new pillow every one to two years.

Sleeping with Too Many Pillows

If you’re waking up with headaches you might think the best pain relief solution is more pillows. But you should really only be using one good pillow under your head at night to align your spine and avoid pain. If you’re sleeping with multiple pillows under your head they could shift at night and lead to muscle tension and headaches. That said, sleeping with extra pillows between your legs or under your arms (instead of under your head) could improve your sleep quality. Take a look at our how many pillows should you sleep with article to learn more.

How Can I Stop Waking Up with a Headache?

If you’re waking up with a headache and have already replaced your pillows, there are a few other tricks you can try to wake up pain-free and refreshed. Read on below to learn more.

Get Extra Rest

Sleep deprivation can be a cause of headaches in the morning. In fact, there is a clear link between lack of sleep and frequency of migraine or tension headaches. So, if you’re waking up with headaches more often than not, you might want to consider going to bed earlier.

Adults over 18 need at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and almost one in three Americans do not get enough sleep. In addition to causing headaches, interrupted sleep can contribute to other health conditions and affect our overall wellness. Take a look at our how much sleep do I need article to learn more about the health benefits of getting enough sleep.

Hydrate Before Bed

There is also a link between headaches and dehydration! Staying hydrated at night could help you wake up feeling refreshed. Plus, hydrating can actually help you sleep better. In fact, a new study linked shorter sleep and dehydration. So drinking water 1-2 hours before bed can help you take advantage of the headache-reducing benefits of hydration and extra rest.

How much water should you drink? As a rule of thumb, you should drink about half your weight in ounces of water per day. If you find yourself waking up thirsty, you may also want to leave a full water bottle or pitcher on your bedside table. If you sleep hot, a cooling pillow or a cooling mattress might help control night sweats and keep you more hydrated throughout the night, preventing morning headaches.

Adjust Your Nighttime Diet

Sugar or caffeine before bed and late-night snacking can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Too much sugar may also trigger headaches. Avoiding eating right before bed and maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet throughout the day can help you fall asleep faster and get better quality sleep. Two things that increase your chances of waking up without a headache!

You should try to avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed and stay away from foods high in caffeine or sugar later in the day. This will help you avoid acid reflux and restlessness, which will improve sleep quality and prevent headaches. If you’re on a specific diet, our relationship between popular diets and sleep article might have some extra advice tailored to your needs.

Avoid Hangovers

Wondering how alcohol impacts sleep? The answer is not well! Alcohol can make you get up more frequently to use the restroom, exacerbate breathing problems during sleep, disrupt REM sleep, and even affect your dreams. But more than that, a hangover can cause headaches that either start when you wake up or disturb you during the night. Hangover headaches are extremely common and can last for up to three days. Additionally, three out of ten people who suffer from migraines say alcohol can trigger a headache. If you’re struggling with headaches in the morning, avoiding a hangover could be a quick fix.

Utilize Sleep Apnea and Snoring Remedies

What is sleep apnea? It is a sleep disorder that causes sleepers to stop breathing in their sleep. Normally, sleepers with sleep apnea will wake up briefly (perhaps so briefly they don’t even notice it). This disturbs their sleep cycles and prevents restful sleep, which can lead to headaches in the morning. In fact, morning headaches are a very common symptom of sleep apnea.

If you suspect you might suffer from sleep apnea, visit your doctor. They will offer solutions like a CPAP machine, surgical options, or synthetic cannabis. These treatments can drastically improve your sleep quality and reduce headaches. If you snore often but don’t have sleep apnea, things like sleeping on your side, avoiding alcohol and cigarettes, and trying over-the-counter nasal strips could all help you reduce snoring and improve your sleep quality.

Reduce Screen Time

Finally, reducing screen time before bed could improve your sleep and decrease your chance of waking up with a headache. Blue light from computers, phones, and televisions makes it harder to fall asleep, reduces sleep quality, and can cause eye strain that leads to headaches and muscle pain. Cutting down on screen time before bed can help you sleep better. Cutting down on screen time during the day and trying fixes like blue light glasses can also help you reduce eye strain and prevent headaches.

Check out our how does light affect sleep article to learn about how all different types of light might affect your sleep.

Choose the Right Pillow for Your Sleep Needs

So, you think your pillow might be the cause of your morning headaches? Then there are a few things you’ll want to consider to choose the right pillow to avoid headaches. The most common cause of pillow-induced headaches is neck pain and tension. So the first step is choosing a pillow that supports your neck. Our 5 best pillows for neck pain roundup is a great place to start.

In addition to checking out those options, you’ll want to consider the below factors when choosing a new pillow.

Pillow Type

The type of pillow you use has a big effect on how supportive it is and what sleeping positions it works for. Our 15 types of pillows you should know about article covers all the different types of pillows you may want to consider. As a general rule of thumb, side sleepers should look for firm, supportive pillows made of materials like memory foam and latex. Stomach sleepers should look for soft, flat pillows made of down or down alternatives. Back sleepers can choose what feels comfortable to them. Choosing a pillow with the right loft and firmness for you will have a big impact on aligning your spine and reducing headaches.

Allergen-free / Hypoallergenic filling

If you suffer from sinus headaches, it is a good idea to consider a pillow that uses an allergen free or hypoallergenic filling. This may reduce sinus pressure over time. Latex pillows and organic pillows are often good options if you are looking for a hypoallergenic pillow. I also like the AllerEase hypoallergenic cotton body pillow!

Right Loft for Your Sleep Position

Choosing the right loft for your sleeping position is the key to aligning your spine and preventing neck pain and tension. Which, as we know, prevents headaches. Take a look below to learn what you need for your sleeping position:

  • Side sleepers need a pillow with a high loft that takes pressure off their shoulders and prevents their head from sinking down below their necks. Our best pillows for side sleepers article has some great options for these folks.
  • Back sleepers do best on pillows with a medium-to-high loft that keeps their head neutrally aligned with their spine while they are on their backs. A pillow that is too flat can cause lower back pain, while a pillow that is too lofty can cause neck pain and headaches. Check out the best pillows for back sleepers to see some pillows that might work for you.
  • Stomach sleepers need pillows with extremely low lofts to prevent a bend in their neck and lower back that leads to pain and headaches. Some stomach sleepers even prefer sleeping without any pillow at all. Our best pillows for stomach sleepers article reviews some comfortable low-loft pillows.
  • Combination Sleepers often do best on pillows with a medium loft that allow them to switch between positions at night. As a rule of thumb, if you switch between your back and side at night a medium-to-high loft pillow will work best for you. If you switch between your back and stomach, opt for a lower loft pillow. If you switch between your stomach and side, I often recommend choosing a pillow that feels comfortable on your side and then resting your head on the mattress when you roll over to your stomach at night.

Head support

Finally, head support is an important factor to consider. Some sleepers like a pillow that contours to their head and neck but allows some sinkage. Others prefer a bouncy pillow that allows them to rest on top of the sleep surface. And others like to sink down into soft fluff. If you suffer from morning headaches, I recommend a pillow that offers some contouring and neck support. Take a look below to learn how supportive a few common pillow materials are.

  • Memory foam pillows often feel firm and supportive. They offer minimal sinkage and a lot of contouring around the head, neck, and shoulder. I recommend these pillows for back and side sleepers looking to reduce neck pain and headaches. Sound like you? Check out the best memory foam pillows.
  • Latex pillows are buoyant and don’t offer much contouring. They are great at maintaining their loft and will make you feel like your a resting “on top of” your pillow rather than sinking into it. I recommend them for side sleepers looking for a hypoallergenic option to reduce sinus headaches. Check out the best latex pillows of 2022 for some brand recommendations.
  • Down pillows do not maintain their loft and feel very soft and fluffy. They are the best fit for stomach sleepers looking to avoid a bend in their necks to prevent headaches. Check out the best down pillows if that sounds like you.
  • Down alternative pillows feel very similar to down pillows, but they are not made with animal products. They are a great option for stomach sleepers who also suffer from allergies. You can try a down alternative pillow to both prevent neck misalignment and combat sinus headaches.

FAQs

What’s the best sleeping position to avoid headaches?

Sleeping on your back is the best way to avoid headaches. It keeps your spine neutrally aligned and avoids causing muscle strain in your neck or back. It also keeps your face away from your pillow and mattress, which can reduce headaches caused by allergens.

What is the best pillow for tension headaches?

The best pillow for tension headaches is one that meets your sleep needs. You’ll do best on a pillow that helps you neutrally align your spine to prevent straining your neck (which causes tension headaches). As a rule of thumb, side sleepers should look for firm lofty pillows, stomach sleepers should look for soft flat pillows, and back sleepers should look for medium-firm pillows with medium lofts.

What is the best pillow for neck pain?

It depends on your sleeping position! Side sleepers need a firm, lofty pillow to avoid neck pain. Stomach sleepers need a flat, soft pillow. Back sleepers should stick to a medium loft pillow that offers some contouring around the neck and head. Check out the 5 best pillows for neck pain to get a recommendation that works for you.

Does caffeine help headaches?

Yes, caffeine can help relieve your headache symptoms, especially if you have a tension headache. It will narrow your blood vessels, which prevents pain messages from traveling to the brain as quickly. If you have a headache, drinking a coke and taking ibuprofen is a great quick fix.

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Madison Schaper

Madison is an ex-mattress tester and current law student. When she’s not studying, she puts her accumulated mattress and bedding knowledge to good use writing articles for Mattress Clarity. A few of her favorite non-work activities include trying new restaurants, reading short stories, and watching too much reality TV.