10/25/2010 11:31 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Link Between Sleep Apnea and Migraines

I'm still trying to get over the fact that it's football season. Last month a news brief reported on Minnesota Vikings player Percy Harvin, who lost consciousness and had to leave practice in an ambulance on August 19. It was a scary incident that led to, of all things, a sleep test.

Harvin is a long-time sufferer of migraines, and at first he thought his collapse on the field was solely related to another headache. But it turns out that his problem is much simpler than that: an overnight sleep test determined that Harvin has sleep apnea. Eight times during the sleep test he stopped breathing for up to 10 seconds at a time. The doctors suspect that Harvin wasn't getting enough oxygen while sleeping, which clearly affected his performance during the day.

The reason I call Harvin's problem "simple" is because migraines can be very challenging to prevent and treat (they are still quite a mystery), but sleep apnea has a clear solution that works for many people: a CPAP device helps regulate a person's breathing while sleeping. No sooner had Harvin begun using one that his sleep was transformed. As for his migraines, he no longer needs medication for them. I guess a good night's sleep is enough to keep his migraines in check.

Harvin's recent experience brings to light a lot of similar health concerns for football players:

  • The nature of the sport raises their risk for physical injury, head trauma and fractures.
  • Defensive players are encouraged to keep a certain amount of weight on, so they tend to be overweight according to standard body mass index charts; therefore, they live with a heightened risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc.
  • Having a sleep disorder exacerbates these risks.

But here's something interesting: a new study shoots down suggestions by prior studies that the prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) among NFL players is disproportionately high. According to this latest study, which examined a total of 137 active veteran players from six NFL teams, SDB wasn't nearly as pervasive among players as one might imagine. It was modest and predominately mild, and any SDB documented did not account for excess cardiovascular risk factors.

I admit that I was scratching my head at this one. I would have guessed that the scientists would confirm the obvious, that football players are more likely to have sleep-disordered breathing, which in turn increases their risk for cardiovascular problems. What really surprised me was reading that linemen and non-linemen did not differ in the prevalence or severity of SDB!

If there's one takeaway point to highlight here, it's that sleep can be the ticket to a reduced risk of headaches and migraines. There's plenty of research to back this up. And you don't have to be a professional football player to appreciate that!

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. is a sleep expert and the author of Beauty Sleep: Look Younger, Lose Weight and Feel Great Through Better Sleep. Learn more about him at