A speech bubble with electric bolts in it sits next to a head with angry scribbles inside it

RA Strain: What a Headache!

Lately, I’ve developed a new (and annoying) problem: headaches. Nearly every day, by the end of the day, I experience an almost pounding headache - the type of headache where you just sit in a chair, slumped over, wondering “What the heck is happening inside my skull?!”

Headaches and rheumatoid arthritis

But what I’ve really noticed is that the severity of these headaches often corresponds with the severity of my RA symptoms - meaning that when my RA is at its worse, so are my headaches. It’s got me wondering: is there a connection between headaches and RA?

Without a doubt, joint pain — along with other prominent symptoms of RA — can cause headaches. I’ve definitely experienced that first-hand. I’m not sure of the exact physiology of this connection. But what I am sure of is that joint pain often causes me to have emotional pain which then causes headaches.

Stigma contributes to the emotional pain of RA

What’s the reason behind this emotional pain? I can think of a lot of things. For one, there’s a lot of stigma to having a chronic illness. In a deluge of medication ads and products aimed at alleviating pain, it’s not hard to see how chronic illness becomes synonymous with “there’s something wrong with you” or “othering”.

Then, there’s the compounding factor of my age. I’m only 23 and having a chronic illness like rheumatoid arthritis definitely sets me apart from most of my peers and friends.

It’s like being stuck in this position where I don’t want to talk about my condition (and thereby be vulnerable and, at the same time, make it seem like I’m complaining all the time). Yet my emotional operating mode is to constantly (and consistently) talk about my condition — which might be evidenced by how much I write for RheumatoidArthritis.net!

These headaches border on a migraine

But, back to the headaches. While they do seem to mostly correspond with my increased amounts of emotional pain, they also have the ability to exist outside of my emotions (and one of those headaches may or may not be happening as I’m writing this piece).

The most jarring and painful of these headaches borders on a migraine, making me want to just crawl in bed, close all the curtains, turn off all the lights, and just tune out the rest of the world.

What helps my headaches

Some days, that’s helpful. Other days.. not so much. But what does really help is my good and trusty friend, ibuprofen; staying hydrated with water; a snack of some type; and slow and deep breathing.

Particularly the latter, because my brain often has the tendency to assume the worst when I have a headache - usually something along the lines of, “This is it; I’ve definitely developed brain cancer or a tumor or something with all of these headaches.” None of that has become true (thankfully), but there’s no question that having RA, emotional pain, chronic illnesses, health anxiety, and more contribute more and more to these persisting headaches.

And all of that is definitely giving my head a spin!

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