Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer
What a headache!


You might think that living with chronic pain from RA is enough to deal with on a daily basis. I think it’s more than enough, personally. But apparently I don’t have enough pain in my life because I also suffer from intensely painful headaches quite frequently. And right now is one of those times! Well, my headaches began to flare up a couple weeks ago around when I started my kindergarten substitute teaching job, which is probably not a coincidence. I think the stress of dealing with a room full of loud, rambunctious kindergarteners all day every day would give anybody a headache!

Most of my chronic headaches are tension headaches that sometimes (but rarely) turn into migraines. Some people might think that tension headaches aren’t that big of a deal, and for many people they aren’t — they’re minor annoyances that go away quickly. Unfortunately that’s not the case with mine. My headaches become so blindingly painful that I can’t do anything except lie down for days. They are debilitating and limit the quality of my life.

I first started getting these bad tension headaches when I was about 19, I think. After months of doctor appointments with no answers (and no relief), I wound up being referred to a neurologist who diagnosed me and then ordered a course of physical therapy to get the pain and inflamed muscles affecting my head under control. Strangely, my headaches started not that long after I was diagnosed with RA. I’ve often wondered if there’s a connection there or what exactly that connection is. It makes sense that stress can cause a person’s RA to flare up and get worse. But could RA also trigger headaches? Dealing with chronic pain is very hard and stressful on your body. Is the reason why I tense up so much because of my RA pain? Do other RA patients suffer from tension headaches similar to mine or migraines? I’d be interested to hear of others’ experiences with this and if it’s a common thing.

But back to my latest throbbing, stabbing, piercing, aching, grating, squeezing, pulsing headache. When I could tell that it was getting worse last week, I tried to remember to do some of my neck stretches and exercises that I learned from multiple sessions of physical therapy over the years. Usually this works, but not this time. In addition to stress, and possibly the pain from RA, another contributor to my headaches is that I have the bad habit of clenching my teeth and jaw. I’ve tried different exercises and tricks to stop doing this, yet I always end up unconsciously gritting my teeth throughout the day and at night. I suspect that my teeth clenching has been especially bad and severe regarding this latest headache flare-up which is making it a lot harder for my pain to calm down and go away.

Almost in tears, I went to Urgent Care last Monday evening, desperate for some relief. Thankfully I was able to see a very nice, patient doctor who listened to my history of headaches and my RA and he eased my worry that I was now developing some kind of crazy never-ending migraines. Or that I had something worse: a BRAIN TUMOR. He assured my delirious-from-pain self that I did not have a brain tumor and sent me off with prescriptions for Percocet and Ativan to try to “knock it out,” as he said.

I’m happy to report that my headache from hell is mostly “knocked out,” although not completely gone yet. I know that I’m in major need of relaxation and de-stressing myself otherwise not only will my RA flare up, but so will these awful headaches and who knows what else. The body-stress connection is a pretty amazing thing.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Wren moderator
    4 years ago

    Hi, Angela. I’ve had this sort of overwhelming tension headache several times, the last about 30 years ago (thank goodness!), before I was diagnosed with RA. It was long ago, but I remember it clearly–I was sure I had a brain tumor! I couldn’t stand upright without my head pounding so hard that I was afraid I’d fall, and of course it made me nauseous as well. My Dad took me to the ER; I couldn’t manage it myself. The docs said my neck and shoulder muscles were in spasm. They prescribed Tylenol 3 and muscle relaxers, along with moist heat. The headache finally passed, but it took two days.

    I’ll never forget that headache. Ever since then, when I feel my neck and shoulder muscles tightening up, I take measures to relax them. Stretching and moist heat is enough to ward off the headache–I hope it continues to work, too.

    I’ve never connected the tension headaches to my RA because the RA came a couple of years after that last one, but who knows? Maybe the headache was an early indication of worse to come!

    I’m so sorry you’re suffering with these! RA is more than enough for anyone! I hope your doc will find a more reliably useful, faster treatment for you.

  • Ava
    4 years ago

    Hi Angela, I have also have had the headache issue along with with my RA, and Fibromyalgia, and several other issues.. I was diagnosed in 2003, and have a great neurologist. I too have been noticing that I have been clinching my jaw, which I have never been doing before. It seems it is a never ending cycle, stress, flare, headache, pain, on and on and on.. Last night I went to bed at 8:00 in so much pain from shoulder, neck pain that I could not set in a chair.. I feel so bad for my husband because he is left for himself… I do not feel like myself anymore it has taken over my life.. I awoke at 2:00 am with the same pain, and had to take muscle relaxers to try an relieve it…needless to say, it was a sleepness night, and another day begins..I have tried it all, massage is my preference, and I use Stadol to help control the really bad headaches… My prayers go out to all that suffer this disease, because it just doesn’t effect just one area of your body, it takes what it wants… peace to all…

  • Carolyn Haney
    4 years ago

    Hi,Angela I also have horrific headaches. Mine started as migraines about 10 years ago.the migraines were so bad that my PCP sent me to see a neurologist which involved cat scans, MRI’s which were all clear. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia and hypothyroidism and I wondered if these two autoimmune diseases were to blame. I was just scratching the surface because they became almost daily after I was diagnosed with Post Streptococcal Reactive Rheumatoid Arthritis AND finally TMJ. I’ve finally began to realize that the TMJ in my right jaw sets the tone for the next debilitating headache. Stress of any kind starts the vicious cycle of clenching my jaws, grinding my teeth and then the sickening headache. I’ve tried heat, ice even steroid shots straight into my jaw

  • Poll