A spinal headache is not a normal headache. It is triggered when fluid leaks from your spine, messes up the fluid pressure around your brain, and stretches the nerves of your brain, causing head pain.
There are some predictable risk factors for getting this type of headache. For instance, spinal headaches occur in a third of people who receive a spinal tap (AKA lumbar puncture).
Learn the ins and outs of spinal headaches, including causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Then you can be prepared for one if you ever have to experience a spinal headache.
What is a spinal headache?
When cerebrospinal fluid leaks from the meninges, your brain tissues and nerves stretch. An intense head pain follows. This is a spinal headache.
These are also known as:
Spinal headaches are often caused by a spinal tap.
A spinal tap is when a doctor or anesthesiologist puts a spinal needle into the spinal canal in the lower back — for several reasons. Sometimes, the needle can leave a puncture site where spinal fluid leaks out of the epidural space.
When CSF leaks and the CSF pressure decreases, it messes up the balance of fluid in which the brain floats. The brain sags downward. The tissues and nerves of the brain stretch. This causes headache pain. And the spinal tap has caused a spinal headache.
The most common reasons you might need a spinal tap are:
Other causes of spinal headaches include a ruptured cyst on the spinal cord and head/face/skull trauma.
Common Symptoms: What does a spinal headache feel like?
What does a spinal headache feel like? These are the most common symptoms of a spinal headache:
- Head pain that is…
- Unilateral (either in the front OR back of the head, not both)
- Can be intense or mild
- Worse when standing, sitting, coughing, sneezing
- Neck pain, neck stiffness
- Nausea, vomiting
- Ringing in the ears (called tinnitus)
- Hearing loss
- Blurred vision, double vision
- Sensitivity to bright lights
Spinal headaches are typically more severe for people when standing or sitting. Lying down (especially bed rest) often alleviates some of the head pain.
Are spinal headaches dangerous? Spinal headaches are not usually dangerous. Typically, spinal headaches go away within a day, and they do not recur. But in some cases, they can persist for more than a day or lead to life-threatening complications. In these cases, you should consult a specialist right away.
In extremely rare cases, spinal headaches can cause death.
How long does it take for a spinal headache to go away? A spinal headache can last for hours or potentially days. If a headache lasts any longer than a day, you should schedule a consultation immediately. There are rare but life-threatening complications that may arise from persistent spinal headache.
The typical spinal headache should go away within a day. You can seek chiropractic care, use painkillers (preferably all-natural ones with no side effects), or just wait it out.
Unfortunately, spinal headaches share a lot of symptoms with other headaches, such as tension headache or migraine. Knowing the risk factors can help you understand if you are experiencing this type of headache.
Causes & Risk Factors of Spinal Headaches
Here are the risk factors for getting a spinal headache:
Should you seek help?
Spinal headaches usually go away with no treatment. The two out of ten people who suffer from a spinal headache who require some treatment can often relieve pain at home.
But there are a few reasons you should seek help when you get a spinal headache.
When are symptoms serious enough to see a medical professional?
How would a doctor diagnose a spinal headache?
The doctor will conduct a medical history. Make sure to mention if you have had a recent spinal tap.
If you have had a lumbar puncture in the past couple weeks, diagnosis is pretty simple. Testing is not needed.
If you have not had a recent spinal tap, the doctor might use an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to find the origin of your spinal headache. An MRI lets the doctor look in the brain and spine for leaking cerebrospinal fluid.
Can a spinal headache go away on its own? Yes, eight in ten spinal headaches improve without treatment. For those of us trying to avoid chemicals in our body, this is good news.
For the other two out of ten, fret not. There are some natural treatments, such as all-natural painkillers and chiropractic care.
Effective Spinal Headache Remedies
Treating spinal headaches doesn’t have to be complicated. At Denver Upper Cervical Chiropractic, we believe in treating the root cause of your headache.
How do you get rid of a spinal headache? Here are some all-natural remedies for spinal headaches.
Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care
Chiropractic care is the best way to solve issues with cerebrospinal fluid levels.
Upper cervical chiropractic care is effective at normalizing cerebrospinal fluid pressure. A lot of research supports chiropractic care’s ability to treat headaches.
Chiropractic alignment also reduces the physical stress that can lead to headaches. We have helped so many people recover completely.
Chiropractic care is essential for headache prevention since spinal misalignment and spinal fluid levels contribute to headaches. Studies show that visiting a high-quality chiropractor can reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of headaches — as well as your reliance on pharmaceuticals.
The first course of treatment should be to hydrate.
Drinking plenty of fluids can increase your cerebrospinal fluid pressure and relieve headache pain. Many doctors will even suggest drinking high-caffeine drinks.
Hydration is not as consistently effective as blood patch treatment.
A commonly prescribed treatment for spinal headaches is a blood patch.
Also called an epidural blood patch, this is where the patient’s blood is injected into the epidural space. This causes a blood clot that patches up the leak.
70% of people who use a epidural blood patch get rid of their spinal headache pretty quickly. Those who do not improve may require a second blood patch or even specialized stitches.
Blood patches come with the standard minimal risk of any epidural procedure. But its effectiveness outweighs the slight risks.
Surgical Glue or Stitches
In rare cases, a doctor may utilize surgical glue or stitches to patch up the tiny hole in your spinal cord.
This is usually only after blood patches do not fix your spinal headache.
Several dietary supplements can help you deal with the headache pain. These don’t treat the root cause of your spinal headache, but pain relief is often a powerful asset.
- Lavender oil
- Peppermint oil
- Rosemary oil
- Indian frankincense (also called boswellia)
Non-Cutting Needle (Prevention)
When a doctor performs a spinal tap, she/he can opt for a smaller, blunt-tipped spinal needle called a “non-cutting needle” or “atraumatic needle.”
This reduces the risk of leakage, and therefore the risk of spinal headaches.
Rare Spinal Headache Complications
In rare situations, if your spinal headache goes untreated, it can trigger complications, sometimes life-threatening:
Looking to the Future
If you ever have a spinal tap, or head injury, anticipate the possibility of an imbalance of spinal fluid and developing a spinal headache.
Chiropractic care treats and prevents many conditions, including regulating cerebrospinal fluid levels. Consider seeing a chiropractor if you experience persistent headaches.
If you live in the greater Denver area, click here to set up an appointment at Denver Upper Cervical Chiropractic. We reserve Fridays for out-of-town patients.
Only some people will experience these headaches more than once. If you experience recurring spinal headaches, consult a medical professional right away — it might be a warning sign of something life-threatening.