The Link Between Rheumatoid Arthritis and Headaches

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Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks tissues surrounding the joints. In some cases, the inflammation affects other parts of the body as well. Headaches are a known symptom of RA and result, in part, from inflammation of the head and neck.

This article explores the link between RA and headaches and how to cope with and treat headaches as a symptom of RA.

Woman sitting up in bed with a headache

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Headaches

Studies report a strong connection between RA and headaches.

Headaches are a recognized symptom of rheumatic diseases (autoimmune and inflammatory diseases) but often go unrecognized as a symptom of arthritis. Research suggests that rheumatoid headaches can result from inflammation in areas of the brain.

In some cases, headaches may also signal the progression of RA.

RA and Migraines

RA increases the risk of migraines, and migraines are associated with worsening RA. One study found that the prevalence of migraines in people with RA is 28.2% The study also found that people with RA who experience migraines also have increased functional losses and RA disease activity vs. those in the non-migraine group.

Treatment

Although there is no cure for RA, early treatment is essential. Treatments for RA can help:

  • Reduce joint inflammation
  • Slow or prevent long-term joint damage
  • Maximize physical movement
  • Allow people to live active lifestyles

The same treatments used to help treat RA pain can, in many cases, also relieve associated headache pain. Early treatment can also help prevent long-term issues and disabilities related to RA.

Some treatment options for RA include medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery.

Medication

There are two types of medication used to prevent RA from worsening. Both types stop the effect of the released chemicals when the immune system attacks the body's joints. They include:

  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs): These are medications such as methotrexate, leflunomide, and hydroxychloroquine.
  • Biologic treatments: These include injectable or intravenous medication such as adalimumab, etanercept, and infliximab.

Early drug treatment may start with methotrexate (a DMARD) and steroids to prevent pain-causing inflammation.

Biologic treatments are often a second resort if DMARDs do not provide enough relief.

Pain medication to target headache pain may include:

Talk to your healthcare provider about what medication would be best for you and ensure that you understand the side effects of each.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes that may help with RA and associated headaches include:

  • An anti-inflammatory diet with healthy fats and lower salt intake
  • Regular physical exercise
  • Weight loss to take the stress off of joints

Talk to your rheumatologist about lifestyle changes that are right for you. They may recommend seeing a nutritionist or physical therapist to aid in making positive and consistent lifestyle changes.

Surgery

In some cases, your provider may recommend surgery to repair severe joint deformities, such as knee or hip replacement. Surgery for upper spine pain is usually a last resort option.

Prevention

RA-induced headaches may be preventable with some of the same measures that also prevent RA flare-ups (times of worsening symptoms) from occurring. Always talk with your healthcare provider about RA and headache prevention.

Here are a few tips:

  • Get your stress levels under control: Stay out of the fight-or-flight mode to reduce your level of cortisol, a stress hormone.
  • Get enough quality sleep: Not enough sleep also increases stress hormones in the body.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: Dehydration can make headache pain even worse.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and other triggers.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have RA or experience headaches with any regularity, talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment plan for you. They will likely want to perform a physical examination and order tests to rule out other, sometimes more serious conditions.

Contact your healthcare provider or call 911 right away if you experience any of the following headache symptoms:

  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Feeling the worst headache pain you have ever had
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of vision
  • Headache lasting over 72 hours

Summary

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition in which the body's immune system attacks tissues surrounding the joints. There is evidence that RA causes headaches. Often, the same treatments used for RA pain will relieve associated headache pain as well.

Treatment for headaches associated with RA includes medications, lifestyle changes, and, in some cases, surgery. Some ways to prevent RA headaches include reducing chronic stress, getting a good night's sleep, staying hydrated, and avoiding cigarette smoke or other triggers.

If you have RA or experience headaches with any regularity, talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment plan for you.

A Word From Verywell 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a painful and sometimes debilitating condition for many people. To experience headache pain on top of it only adds to the frustration. Fortunately, there are several treatment options available to help you manage and even prevent headache pain from occurring. Talk to your healthcare provider about these options and other measures you can take to reduce RA flare-ups, inflammation, and pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are headaches a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis?

    Headaches are a common but not often discussed symptom of RA. Migraines are also associated with RA. One 2021 study found that the prevalence of migraines for people with RA is 28.2%.

  • How can you get rid of a headache quickly?

    Pain medication to target headache pain can include NSAIDs (ibuprofen or naproxen), Tylenol (acetaminophen), and steroids like prednisone.

    Talk to your healthcare provider about the fastest way you can safely treat a headache. You may also want to consider lifestyle changes to prevent headaches from occurring, such as staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet.

  • When should you see a healthcare provider for frequent headaches?

    If you have RA and regularly experience headaches, talk to your provider. They will likely want to perform a physical examination and order diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions. But if you are experiencing any of the following headache symptoms, call 911 right away:

    • Uncontrollable vomiting
    • Experiencing "the worst headache pain you have ever had"
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Vision disturbances
    • Headache lasting over 72 hours
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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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