Are you experiencing headaches and wondering if your arthritis could be the culprit? Sadly yes, arthritis can cause headaches in addition to its other symptoms. But depending on what type of arthritis you have, the exact cause can vary.
It’s essential to know the root cause of the headache, so you and your doctor can choose the proper treatment.
How Does an Arthritis Headache Feel?
A headache caused by arthritis may come with the same symptoms as any other headache, but sometimes it can also come with other symptoms you don’t commonly have with an everyday headache.
Neck pain will typically set in before developing a headache. The head pain will be at the back of your head and not in your temple area. Sometimes the pain is more severe on one side than the other. You may notice tingling in your neck or arms if a nerve is affected. Or you may mistake the headache for a migraine because the sensations can be alike.
If you are experiencing arthritis pain in your neck alongside your headache, there is a good chance that it may be the cause.
Headaches Caused by Rheumatoid Arthritis
Since rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory type of arthritis, most of the pain associated with RA comes from inflammation between the joints. If your RA targets the vertebrae in your neck, it can create pressure on one of the nerves, resulting in regular headaches.
The RA could also restrict blood supply to your brain that might trigger a headache. Treatment for either of those issues will be similar.
Headaches Caused by Osteoarthritis
Alternately, if your headache is caused by osteoarthritis, it is more likely due to the bony growths associated with the condition. If one of the growths puts pressure on your other vertebrae or a nerve, you may develop headaches in addition to different types of pain.
Though the pressure created will be the same as the pressure created by RA, the treatment will not be. The extra bone that has formed won’t be reduced the way inflammation can be.
Let’s take a look at your options for treating arthritis headaches.
Arthritis Headache Treatments
Depending on what you’ve determined to be the cause of your headaches, one or more of the below treatment choices may relieve some or all of your symptoms.
Before altering any medical treatment plan, always consult your doctor.
The first step in treating your headache is to find immediate relief. The best way to do this is generally over-the-counter medications that can help with pain and inflammation.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) will provide temporary relief from the pain and inflammation. There are risks associated with long-term or excessive use of NSAIDs, so be sure to always follow the instructions on the label and speak with your physician before using about any other conditions or medications that they may interfere with.
Your doctor should manage OTC medications for anything more than short-term use.
There are neck support products available that can help to stabilize the joints in your neck that may help minimize your headaches by reducing the pressure caused by inflammation or bone growths caused by your arthritis.
Neck braces, or cervical collars, are recommended only for limited short-term use, though. If used for too long of a period, it may cause the muscles in your neck to weaken.
If you find that neck support has helped, talk with your doctor about long-term use or other treatment options that may work well.
Arthritis requires that you know when your body has reached its limits and don’t overdo it. You will likely find that your headaches occur more often during periods when you aren’t giving your body enough recovery time.
Try to schedule your physical activity in short bursts so that you can get plenty of rest in between. There may be times when this isn’t possible, but then you need to clear your schedule to give your body time to recover for a few days after.
If the joints in your neck are feeling stiff, you may benefit from some light stretching. Healthline has demonstrated a few simple stretches that you can do daily. For these exercises, you should be sitting straight up in a sturdy chair with good posture. It’s crucial to maintain the correct form throughout to prevent injury.
If at any point you feel pain or discomfort, stop immediately and speak to a medical professional before resuming.
Your doctor may recommend physical therapy under a licensed practitioner to help improve range of motion, reduce stiffness, and improve muscle strength to increase joint support in your neck. The physical therapist will walk you through stretches and exercises that may become progressively more complex to take pressure off of your vertebrae.
By removing excess pressure, your arthritis headaches should improve.
Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are available to help fight inflammation if your rheumatoid arthritis is to blame for your headaches. If you’re taking prescribed medication for your RA already, talk to your doctor about switching to help manage your new headache symptoms.
Your doctor may also recommend a prescribed pain medication to help manage your pain if growths from osteoarthritis are applying pressure to a nerve or vertebrae in an effort to avoid more invasive treatment.
Because the bone growths are likely to reoccur, surgery is often the last resort. However, if the effects of the extra bone growth are negatively impacting your quality of life, then surgery may be worth exploring.
Additional bone spurs that form due to osteoarthritis may require surgery if they cannot be managed through other treatments or if they continue to grow in size.
If you find that your headaches continue or increase even after treatment, you’ll need to talk to your doctor about your next steps. As with all arthritis symptoms, the correct treatment for your headaches will be different from person to person.
However, there is no reason to continue to suffer from headaches caused by arthritis with all the options available to help.