Osteoarthritis and Headaches: What's the Connection?

Headaches can occur for a variety of reasons, including stress, caffeine withdrawal, excessive noise, fever, and—more ominously—conditions such as brain tumors and aneurysms. But did you know that joint wear and tear, also known as osteoarthritis, may be the cause of some head pain?

We don't normally associate osteoarthritis with headaches. But the skull does contain joints. We're able to chew because of our jaw joints, and we're able to move our heads up, down, and around because of joints in the neck and top of the spine. If these joints become irritated due to injury, accident, or long periods of poor posture, the discomfort can be felt as a headache.

Head pain that arises because of osteoarthritic irritation in the bony joints or soft tissues of the neck and top of the spine is known as cervicogenic headache in medical parlance. And it can be tough to distinguish from headaches caused by tension or migraines. Up to 2.5 percent of people are thought to suffer from cervicogenic headaches, but a full fifth of people getting headache treatment at pain management clinics are experiencing them. Women are four times likelier to have cervicogenic headaches than men, with an average age of almost 43 years.

How can you tell if your headache is caused by osteoarthritis in the neck? Doctors look for the following:

  • Restricted range of motion of the neck
  • Headache triggered by neck movement
  • Pain upon applying pressure to neck joints

Radiographic scans are not particularly useful in diagnosing cervicogenic headaches but can offer support if a healthcare provider suspects the condition. To treat cervicogenic headaches, doctors may prescribe medications along with anesthetic injections. Physical therapy may be recommended. In severe cases, surgery may be needed.

It's also possible to have arthritis in your temporomandibular joints, also known as your jaw joints. This can make opening your mouth and chewing painful and difficult, and the pain may manifest itself as a headache. How do you know if you have osteoarthritis of the jaw? The jaw will make a snapping or popping sound when it's opened. Osteoarthritis of the jaw is treated by resting the jaw as much as possible and possibly wearing a plastic splint over either the top or bottom set of teeth at night to prevent tooth grinding. Anti-inflammatory medications are often very effective at restoring mobility and lessening discomfort, as is physical therapy.




National Headache Foundation

NorthShore University Health System

Biondi, David M (2005). Cervicogenic Headache: A Review of Diagnostic and Treatment Strategies. Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 105(4), 16-22.