04/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Headaches and Insomnia Going Hand in Hand

Headaches come with the territory these days. Any look at the news can give you one of the most common types around: the tension-type. But if you suffer from chronic tension headaches and resort to sleeping them off, you may want to listen up: a new study out of Rush University just emerged showing a behavioral link between these kinds of headaches and insomnia.

In other words, you could be worsening your headaches--and the quality of your sleep--by snoozing them off.

It's no surprise that one of the ways to treat a headache is to lie down and take a nap (assuming, of course, you have the luxury of napping in the middle of your day). But napping can also conflict with your nighttime sleep if it's not planned carefully. It also appears to incite a vicious cycle: 59 percent of those in the study with tension-type headaches complained of sleep problems as a trigger of those headaches.

It's the classic catch-22. Sleep to dull headache. Sleep to trigger headache.

Not fair? Well, there are some solutions to consider.

The first is treating the headache with other means, such as drugs like aspirin or ibuprofen. A little bit of caffeine can help, too (which can be found in headache meds like Excedrin). But the secret is to be mindful of your nighttime sleep schedule and avoid things that can disrupt your normal bedtime.

I've always advocated avoiding naps after 3 pm, and the same goes for caffeine, including those caffeine-rich headache medicines.

So what do you do if your head begins to pound in the late afternoon?

The late-day headache can be a monster. Sometimes they are simply the result of:

  • staring too long at the computer
  • losing all sense of good posture and straining your neck, upper back, and shoulders
  • forgetting to have a snack when your blood-sugar dives
  • not realizing you haven't had anything to drink in hours
  • letting the tensions of the day pile up in your head--literally.

For late-day headaches, why don't you try:

  1. Take a 15 minute break from whatever you were doing. Go outside, breathe in some fresh air, and get your circulation going at a faster clip. You'd be amazed by what a little circulation can do.
  2. Have a light snack and drink plenty of water.
  3. Consider a brisk walk.

If you can work the headache out without resorting to pills, naps, or caffeine late in the day, you'll be able to sleep better at night and welcome a better--headache-free--day the next.

Nothing is more frustrating than a headache that won't go away... or chronic insomnia that has you perpetually on edge. The good news is acknowledging the link between the two can kill these two annoying beasts with one stone. 

Sweet Dreams,

The Sleep Doctor

Michael Breus, PhD

This article by The Sleep Doctor is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog.