Headache is a very common problem faced by people who have arthritis, due to degenerative changes in the vertebral joints. Two major forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause these changes which as result affect the nerves passing through the neural foramina. This leads to pain that is usually felt at the back of the head and neck but is most severe on one side of the head.
Symptoms of arthritis
- Severe pain at the back of the head and neck
- Neck stiffness
- Inflamed, stiff, and swollen joints especially in the morning
- Neurological signs if a nerve is involved
- Numbness and tingling
- Joint immobility
- If arthritis involves temporomandibular Joint, TMJ headache is present.
How can arthritis cause headaches?
Headache in arthritis is caused due to problems arising in the neck. There are two major types of arthritis that can cause headaches.
- Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It breaks down the cartilage that is present at the end of the vertebrae where they form the facet joints in the spine. With the passage of time the bone is destroyed and forms bony spurs that make any sort of movement at the joint almost impossible. Constant friction leads to severe pain that radiates to the head. It most commonly involves the fifth, sixth, and seventh vertebrae in the neck.
- Rheumatoid arthritis, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder in which the body mistakenly attacks its own joints and causes Inflammation. Inflammation in the cervical region can cause a pinched nerve that leads to headaches.
Cervicogenic headache is another form of headache that is caused due to arthritis.
Management of arthritis and associated headaches
Arthritis can only be managed by decreasing the severity of symptoms. It is not completely treatable and requires lifestyle modifications
- Headache due to arthritis is most commonly misdiagnosed as migraines as their symptoms resemble each other.
- Properly detailed history-taking is required. Any sort of joint pain and swelling should not be overlooked.
- CT scan and MRI are done for an exact diagnosis of the case.
- Neck X-ray might show calcified ligaments in osteoarthritis.
- Anti-inflammatory medicine such as NSAIDs can be used to lower the inflammation
- Acetaminophen can be used to get relief from acute headaches
- DMARDs are given as prescription medication for arthritis
- Physiotherapy is required if a nerve is involved and neurological symptoms present.
- Take plenty of rest
- Stays hydrated to combat dehydration
- Reduce stress and tension
- Try meditation, yoga, and other stress-relieving exercises
- Hot massages can also help with inflammation
- Use a neck collar/neck brace at night to avoid excessive movement and rotation at the neck.
When to consult a doctor?
- Consult a doctor if you start having morning stiffness and immobility at joints.
- Consult a doctor if your headache is persistent and you have to take analgesics more than 10 to 15 days a month.
What is the underlying cause of headaches due to arthritis?
Two major forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause degenerative changes in the vertebral joints, resulting in a headache.
Is the headache due to arthritis completely treatable?
No, the headache is not completely treatable but the severity of symptoms can be managed by taking medication on time and following the doctor’s advice.
Which arthritis is the leading cause of headache?
Rheumatoid arthritis is most commonly associated with headaches.