Do Dreadlocks Hurt?

Do Dreadlocks Hurt?

A few years ago while I was entertaining the idea of getting dreads, the thought of them hurting never crossed my mind. Oddly enough, it’s one of the questions I get asked most often now that I have them- “did your hair hurt?”

HA! Did it? Oh, my goodness…the pain (and dreadlocking process) is not something you could ever forget. The pain is not centered on the hair itself, obviously, it’s concentrated around the scalp and neck area.

On the bright side, the pain will only last a short time when compared to how long you’ll have them for (hopefully).

There are several reasons why your dreadlocks can be the culprit of your pain. We’ll discuss them now

Probable causes of dreadlock-related pain

Dreadlock installation and maintenance

I think it’s safe to say that getting dreadlocks installed is extremely painful for most people. I understand everyone has a different level of pain tolerance but unless your head is made of stone, I guarantee you’ll be uncomfortable in the least.

The scalp is usually sensitive, especially around the sides. If this is your first time tugging at your head, you probably won’t be able to tolerate it for very long. The first couple of hours might feel annoying but if your appointment lasts more than eight hours (like it did for me), the last six hours can become a living nightmare. The same goes for dreadlock maintenance, by the way! Getting your dreads tightened can hurt a lot, especially if little or no loose hair is left at the root. 

The best way I can describe the pain I experienced is with an illustration. Dreadlocks are made up of a bunch of strands of tangled hair, right? Do you remember the days as a kid when your mom used to brush out the knots in your hair? Dread maintenance feels like that except a lot worse and it lasts longer- just think of prolonged nagging pain and misery.

After the session is over, your head will hurt for a few hours if not a couple of days.

Sleeping will also be uncomfortable because as you lay your head on the pillow, you’re applying some pressure to the sensitive scalp area. Unfortunately, it’s something you have to push through, perhaps take ibuprofen to ease the pain. Usually, your head will adjust after the second day and the pain will (almost) be forgotten.

** If you started your dreads using the neglect method, you’ll probably avoid much of this pain, but separating the hair to form even-sized dreads will be similarly painful.

Hair pulling and adjusting

No matter what method you started your dreads with (tear & rip, crochet, au natural, etc) your hair is in an ever-changing process of transformation. The pulling and tugging of the hair as it’s growing is common and can be painful. 

If you separate your dreads often (which you should be doing to prevent congos), you’ll feel pulling and tension at the root because the new hairs are figuring out which dreads to grow into.

During an overseas trip, I neglected my dreads completely because I got lazy. It only took one month for my scalp to become one massive knot which my loctician graciously separated (by that I mean she literally ripped my hair apart at the scalp). That is why I don’t recommend 100% neglect!! At the least you should be running your fingers through your hair, beginning at the scalp, every other day. Expect some pain when pulling apart the new hairs that are growing into the wrong dread.

Backcombing can add more pulling and tension to your scalp, so if you’re doing that you should probably stop.

Scalp soreness due to severe scratching

As your hair adjusts into loc-formation, your scalp also adjusts to less frequent washing and stimulation. If you were used to brushing your hair often and all of a sudden stopped, your scalp is missing that feeling and probably calling out to you for some attention (that itchy feeling). 

Dehydration and dandruff can cause uncontrollable itching as well. Occasional scratching is okay but if it becomes intolerable (as is common the first few months) your scalp will become sore, irritated, and tender to the touch.

Not washing your hair often enough

Ignore all the stereotypes you’ve heard out there. Dreadlocks or not, your hair and scalp need to be washed often to remove buildup. Dreads don’t need to be washed nearly as often as loose hair but at least once a week. If you don’t, you may experience a tender scalp “for no reason.” The reason is that you have sweat, oils, and dirt from the environment piling up and your scalp isn’t able to adjust to that amount of the buildup. The scalp creates these layers which eventually cause itchiness, dandruff, soreness, and other discomforts.

Note that harsh shampoos or shampoos that leave residue can be drying to your scalp, also causing dandruff, nasty things stuck inside your locs, etc. Read the product labels and always rinse your hair out thoroughly after washes.

Neck pain associated with dreads

The thicker and longer your dreads become, the heavier they will get, thereby putting more pressure on your neck. Since having dreads, I noticed a slow-progressing pain around my neck and shoulders. It’s very subtle so it’s not something you would notice overnight. It becomes more obvious when the dreads are up in a bun or after being in the water. Wet dreads are heavy because they’re like sponges- you’ll be surprised how much water they can retain. 

The kind of pillow you use could also be contributing to your neck pain.

While the pain I’m describing here is not alarming for everyone, it usually is noticeable enough that it could become uncomfortable for some people. I typically do some stretches and exercises to strengthen the neck area. I like to believe that as your dreads get longer and heavier, your neck is compensating and becoming stronger too.

** Neck pain is something you should consider especially if you have had any neck problems or injuries in the past and also if you’re prone to migraines.

Other health reasons

STRESS: Stress contributes to a lot of physical issues, including neck pain and headaches. If you suspect that none of the above issues relate to you, try doing some meditative stretches and breathing exercises to alleviate stress and see if your condition improves.

PSORIASIS: It’s common to get psoriasis all over your body, including the scalp and neck. If you find red bumps or irritation and tenderness around your scalp or neck, consult a health professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

UNBALANCED THYROID: Hyper and hypothyroid can cause a myriad of health issues, including generalized neck pain. Some thyroid treatments can worsen migraines or head pain. If you have thyroid issues, talk to a health professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

FIBROMYALGIA: Fibromyalgia is a condition that can cause tenderness and pain throughout the body. You will definitely need a doctor to diagnose you with this but it’s not uncommon to blame the neck pain or scalp sensitivity on dreadlocks, especially if you’re new to the hairstyle and the symptoms are new too. If you feel like your pain hasn’t lessened or is getting worse, consult a medical professional as soon as possible.

How to lessen the pain associated with dreads

Quick-relief

Apply 100% pure aloe vera gel or jojoba oil to soften the hair at the root and relieve some of the tension in your scalp. 

Aloe vera gel is also a great remedy for a tender scalp and it reduces itchiness. If your scalp pain is due to excessive scratching, try out this aloe vera gel recipe to help cure your irritation.

Massage your scalp, neck, and shoulders

Stimulate blood flow to the scalp by massaging the painful areas gently with your fingertips in circular motions. If possible, massage your head with vitamin E oil or other oils that will nurture the scalp and promote blood flow.

Try a deep tissue massage or pay a visit to your chiropractor. Perhaps a professional can help relieve the tension trapped in the muscles.

Stick to a neck exercise routine

I recommend doing some exercises to strengthen the muscles around the neck, the shoulders and the upper back. This will certainly ease some of the soreness.

Make some sleeping adjustments

Try wearing a nightcap or tossing your hair over your pillow (in other words, put all your hair above your head) when you go to sleep. If you’re used to keeping your hair tied overnight, that could be adding tension to your scalp.

Neck pain might also be associated with the kind of pillow you’re using. Try a memory foam pillow or talk to your chiropractor for advice.

Avoid maintenance for a while

If you’re over-maintaining your dreads (that is, more than once every couple months), then stop. Let your hair normalize and form on its own. I understand the need to make them look neat and tidy all the time, but if it comes at the expense of your sore scalp, I recommend you give it a break for a few months. 

In the meantime, you should be washing your hair once a week and separating the locs every other day. If you spend time in the ocean (salt water) or the pool (chlorine), rinse your hair out with fresh water and let it dry completely. 

If you have to tie your hair back for work or comfort, do so loosely. Tight ponytails and buns can cause scalp tenderness and possible headaches. If you can avoid tying your hair at all that’s definitely the better option or pull it back with a cotton headband.

Before and after installation / maintenance

I’m not a fan of over the counter medication but ibuprofen might help ease the pain after your hair appointment. I haven’t tried it but if the pain is unbearable for you, it might be an option. 

A tip that might be worth trying is to wash your hair the day before installation or maintenance. Make sure to show up to the appointment with dry hair (or dreads). Clean hair is easier to work on and washing your head alone might ease the pain associated with buildup in the scalp. Add a few drops of tea tree essential oil to your shampoo for a tingly refreshing feel!


Dreadlocks are amazing and they’re not the root of all your head pain but some pain will be experienced, whether you like it or not. You have to push past the difficult stages to get to where you want your hair to be.

While temporary pain is normal, long-term pain isn’t. Be aware of your body and the symptoms you are having. If your condition doesn’t improve, talk to a health professional. Hopefully, you don’t have to go the drastic route of cutting off your dreadlocks, but it happens in some cases and it’s for the best.

Have you ever experienced pain while having dreadlocks? What did you do to lessen it or fix the problem completely? Let me know in the comments below!

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