Many headaches are caused by underlying health conditions. These are called secondary headaches. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can cause secondary headaches. If you have COPD, determining the cause of your headache is critical because of the potential of life-threatening complications.

How COPD Causes Headaches

COPD is the term for a group of conditions that are known to cause breathing difficulties. COPD can destroy portions of the lung, making it difficult to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Hypoxia is a condition which happens when your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen, overworks your heart and slows down tissue functions. Hypercapnia occurs when you retain too much carbon dioxide.

Headaches from COPD occur from the lack of oxygen combined with the abundance of carbon dioxide. COPD headaches may occur in the morning upon waking up due to having too much carbon dioxide in the blood. If you have COPD and wake up in the morning with headaches, you may be at risk for sleep apnea, according to the American Thoracic Society.

Symptoms of COPD Headaches

In general, headaches can vary in how often they occur and how severe they are. Because headaches are common, you might find it difficult to tell if your headache is related to COPD. Since many COPD headaches occur in the morning, you may experience other signs of breathing difficulty and low oxygen when you wake up. Having these other symptoms may be a sign that your headache is caused by COPD. The symptoms include:

  • Chest pain;
  • Wheezing;
  • Extreme shortness of breath;
  • Choking upon waking up;
  • Rapid breathing.

Other symptoms can occur from hypoxia, which may also happen at the same time as a COPD headache. These include the increases in heart rate and blood pressure. You may also experience red or purple-toned skin spots from oxygen deprivation.

How to Manage COPD Headaches

Managing pain is the main goal when treating many types of headaches. Since COPD headaches are attributed to hypoxia, the first course of action should be to increase your intake. This is achieved  through oxygen therapy. Prescribed by your doctor, oxygen therapy is most often supplied from a tank of gas. The oxygen is delivered via a nasal tube, facemask, or a tube inserted into your windpipe. Symptoms of your headache should improve once you take in an adequate amount of oxygen.

Despite oxygen therapy, you may have problems sleeping at night, which can lead to COPD headaches. Breathing troubles can interrupt your sleep, making it more difficult to function properly the following morning. Headaches are common in the sleep deprived, whether you have COPD or not.

You may also need to treat sleep apnea. Some people with COPD also have this condition. It is characterized by frequent episodes in which breathing is shallow, or it stops altogether during sleep. Over time, this can lead to hypoxia and frequent headaches. Sleep apnea is often treated using a system called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP helps to keep the airways open.

Pain management is also at the main part of COPD headache treatment. Treating headache pain may also improve the quality of life. If you experience COPD headaches on a regular basis, you should ask your doctor the best approach to pain management. Importantly, taking over-the-counter pain medications too often can make your body immune to its effects. In fact, the NINDS advises against taking pain relievers more than two times a week for this reason.

Other potentially helpful methods for alleviating headache pain include:

  • Breathing exercises (such as those in meditation and yoga);
  • Drinking peppermint tea;
  • Getting more sleep;
  • Avoiding sleeping in;
  • Exercising on a regular basis;
  • Avoiding copd triggers (smoke, chemicals, and dust).

COPD headache treatment is more complicated than simply taking over-the-counter pain relievers. As with other types of secondary headaches, you’ll likely experience fewer occurrences over time by treating the underlying health condition. Treating COPD can be challenging, especially since there is no cure. The primary goal is to increase lung function. Not only will this help you breathe easier, you’ll also likely experience fewer symptoms and complications — including headaches.

It’s also important to consider other causes of headaches. Just because you have COPD doesn’t mean you necessarily have a COPD-related headache. If you’re not sure if COPD is causing your headache, have your headaches evaluated by a doctor.

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