Sjögren’s is a systemic autoimmune disease often characterized by dryness of the eyes and mouth and accompanied by chronic fatigue and musculoskeletal pain. More than half of Sjögren’s patients experience systemic symptoms, some of which can involve the nervous system. One of the most common symptoms involving the nervous system is headache. Headaches are a common complaint in healthy people who do not have an autoimmune disease. Some of the most common types of headaches include tension type headaches, migraines (with and without aura), and cluster headaches. Headaches are common in Sjögren’s, estimated to occur in roughly 50 to 75% of patients.
Many Sjögren’s patients may wonder whether or not their underlying autoimmune disease is causing the headaches. Although the answer to this question is largely unknown, some research comparing Sjögren’s patients with healthy controls show that tension-type headaches and migraine headaches, the most common headache subtypes found in Sjögren’s, are more common in those with Sjögren’s than in the general population. Other data demonstrate headaches are more severe in those with Sjögren’s than in those of the general population with depression as a significant influence on headache severity.
Sjögren’s patients may also develop a rare and particularly severe type of headache caused by inflammation of the outer lining of the brain (the leptomeninges) called aseptic meningitis. Although meningitis in general is typically caused by infectious agents like viruses and bacteria, in aseptic meningitis, the inflammation is not caused by infection but rather by other causes such as a reaction to a medication or autoimmune activity. In addition to headaches, aseptic meningitis may also be associated with fever, neck stiffness, and other neurologic symptoms such as double vision.
In general, treatment for routine headaches is the same in those with Sjögren’s as it is for anyone else including medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Treatment for aseptic meningitis may also involve glucocorticoids such as prednisone. For those Sjögren’s patients who suffer from headaches, it is important to discuss this symptom with their primary care practitioner and rheumatologist to see if further evaluation is warranted.
by Chadwick Johr, MD
This article was first printed in the Foundation's patient newsletter for members, Conquering Sjögren's. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.