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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Arthritis-Related Headaches

April 03, 2009

Arthritis-Related Headaches
Arthritis-Related Headaches
Headaches associated with arthritis (also called cervical headaches) are caused by arthritis in the neck and spine.
InteliHealth Medical Content

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Headaches Associated With Arthritis


Headaches related to neck problems (also called cervical headaches) often are caused by arthritis in the neck and spine. Pain is usually located in the back of the head. In the case of a pinched nerve from arthritic bone or disk degeneration, pain may be accompanied by weakness in the arms and/or tingling or numbness in the neck, scalp or arms.


The pain of arthritis results from inflammation and subsequent damage of the joints and connective tissues. There are several different forms of arthritis, but the connection to headache is related more to the location of arthritis than the type. If the cervical vertebrae are involved, headache is more likely to occur. Rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative joint disease are the most common arthritic causes of cervical headache.


Cervical headaches are usually treated first with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen, among others. Sometimes, additional pain relievers are helpful, including acetaminophen (Tylenol and others). Heat, massage and exercise — under your doctor's supervision — are also helpful for some people. A neck collar may reduce symptoms, but should be worn only intermittently to avoid neck stiffness and weakness. If there has been damage to the neck so that nerves or the spinal cord are compressed, surgery may be necessary. Additional treatments for the underlying arthritis — for example, methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis — may reduce joint pain and inflammation, which may lessen the pain of a cervical headache.


Arthritis is the focus of considerable research effort, but currently there is no known way to reliably prevent neck arthritis and the headaches it causes. Treatment today typically involves relieving symptomatic pain and reducing the burden of this illness. It is encouraging that medical research is discovering ways to slow down the destructive process in rheumatoid arthritis, one of the more severe forms.


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