What Is a Spinal Headache?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

A spinal headache is head discomfort caused by a leak of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which surrounds the brain and spinal cord. CSF protects the brain and spinal cord and helps eliminate waste products. If the CSF becomes too low, it causes a decrease in pressure around the brain and spinal cord, thereby causing pain.

This article provides an overview of spinal headaches, procedures that cause them, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment.

Woman in bed with headache

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Procedures That Cause Spinal Headaches

The most common cause of a spinal headache is a procedure called a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. A lumbar puncture is a procedure that requires inserting a needle into the spine to retrieve CSF or provide anesthesia.

The most common reasons a person would need a lumbar puncture are to test the CSF for illness or to receive an epidural (anesthesia) for childbirth.

Other conditions that may cause a CSF fluid leak include head or face injuries, or ruptured cysts on the spinal cord.

Symptoms 

 Classic symptoms of a spinal headache are:

  • Tight head pain, especially at the front of the head
  • Headache that becomes worse when sitting up or standing
  • Neck stiffness
  • Hearing loss
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Nausea or vomiting

Risk Factors 

Factors that might put someone at higher risk of having a spinal headache include:

  • Being female
  • Younger age
  • Pregnancy
  • Low body mass index (BMI)
  • Having multiple lumbar punctures
  • Past medical history of chronic headaches

Identifying risk factors with your healthcare provider before having a lumbar puncture or spinal anesthesia is important so that medical staff can be prepared.

Untreated Spinal Headaches

If left untreated, a spinal headache can cause serious complications such as bleeding in the brain, seizures, or infections.

Treatment

In some cases, spinal headaches are treatable with nonsurgical methods, including:

  • Lying down and resting
  • Drinking water or getting IV (intravenous) hydration
  • Drinking caffeine
  • Steroids

Medications may also help with spinal headaches, including:

  • Antinausea medication, such as Zofran (ondansetron)
  • Ginger for nausea
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, such as Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen)
  • Opiate analgesics

Some patients suffering from a spinal headache may also find relief in complementary alternative medicine (CAM) therapies, such as acupuncture or visualization techniques.

Patients sometimes use a combination of the above treatments for the best pain relief.

Blood Patch for Spinal Headache Pain

If the spinal headache lasts for more than one or two days, your healthcare provider may recommend an epidural blood patch (EBP).

This procedure involves injecting a small amount of the patient's own blood into the space where the CSF leak is. This process may help seal the leak, allowing cerebrospinal pressure to restore to normal and eliminate the headache.

Summary

A spinal headache is caused by a leak of cerebrospinal fluid, a protective fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. The most common cause of a spinal headache is a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). Common symptoms include head pain, neck stiffness, hearing loss, sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting. Fortunately, there are many treatments for a spinal headache, including an epidural blood patch procedure.

A Word From Verywell 

Spinal headaches can be incredibly painful. If you experience one, you may feel overwhelmed and desperate for relief. Fortunately there are treatments available, even for persistent spinal headaches. If you can't find relief, talk to your healthcare provider about pain-relieving medication options or an epidural blood patch procedure.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • When would a healthcare provider recommend a blood patch for a spinal headache?

    If a spinal headache from a CSF leak lasts for more than one or two days and is not responding to conservative pain-relieving options, your healthcare provider may recommend an epidural blood patch (EBP).

  • How can pregnant women avoid epidural headache pain?

    Having an epidural can increase the risk of having a spinal headache. If you get a spinal headache, your healthcare provider may recommend that you drink plenty of fluids (especially those that include caffeine), lie down, and take ibuprofen or other pain medication.

    If you have risk factors—such as younger age, low BMI, or a past medical history of chronic headaches—talk with your provider so that staff can be prepared to manage a spinal headache in advance.

  • Are there any long-term effects of spinal headaches?

    A spinal headache can cause serious complications, such as bleeding in the brain, seizures, or infections, if left untreated.



Was this page helpful?
7 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.
  1. Spears RC. Low-pressure/spinal fluid leak headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2014;18(6):425. doi:10.1007/s11916-014-0425-4

  2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Low CSF headache.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Spinal headaches.

  4. Partownavid P, Wang L, Alaei S, Rahman S. Post-dural puncture headache following lumbar spinal drain: an atypical presentation with cognitive symptoms. Anaesthesia Reports. 2021;9(2). doi:10.1002/anr3.12127

  5. Jabbari A, Alijanpour E, Mir M, Bani Hashem N, Rabiea SM, Rupani MA. Post spinal puncture headache, an old problem and new concepts: review of articles about predisposing factorsCaspian J Intern Med. 2013;4(1):595-602.

  6. Spinal CSF Leak Foundation. Treatment of spinal CSF leak.

  7. Monserrate AE, Ryman DC, Ma S, et al. Factors associated with the onset and persistence of post–lumbar puncture headacheJAMA Neurol. 2015;72(3):325. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2014.3974