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Learning About Spinal Headaches

What is a spinal headache?

Headaches may happen after certain procedures that involve the spine. These procedures include myelograms, spinal taps, and epidurals for anesthesia. In these procedures, a bit of spinal fluid may leak out of the space around the spinal cord. The leak usually isn't dangerous. But if enough fluid leaks out, it changes the pressure around your spinal cord. That can cause a headache.

Many people who have a spinal procedure don't get a headache afterwards. For the people who do, the headache can be relieved by self-care at home. It usually goes away in a few days.

What are the symptoms?

A spinal headache usually starts in the first few days after the procedure that caused it. You may feel a dull, throbbing pain. It can start in the front or back of the head, and you may feel it down into your neck and shoulders. The headache may get worse when you move your head or when you sit or stand. It should ease when you lie down.

You may feel dizzy or sick to your stomach. You may have pain in your lower back. And you may hear a ringing in your ears.

Even if your symptoms are mild, tell your doctor if they last for more than 2 or 3 days. If you have a more severe headache, make sure to call your doctor or nurse advice line.

How are they treated?

A mild spinal headache can be relieved by self-care at home. It usually goes away in a few days. A good first step is to lie down in a quiet, dark room until the headache is gone.

Your doctor may also suggest caffeine to relieve your headache. If your doctor agrees, you can take over-the-counter pain medicine. Be sure to follow the directions on the label.

Don't forget to drink liquids to keep your body hydrated. Avoid drinks with alcohol. They won't help your body stay hydrated. And they may make your headache worse.

If your home treatment doesn't relieve the headache, talk to your doctor about getting treated with a blood patch. This procedure uses your own blood to help your headache.

To apply a blood patch, your doctor takes blood from your arm and injects it into the area of your lower back where the leak happened. The blood restores the pressure around your spinal cord. It also helps seal any leak that may still be there.

Many people feel better right away, but it could take a day or two. And a few people need to have a second blood patch.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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