You know the signs of a headache, such as a dull ache or a feeling of tightness creeping up your neck and across your forehead. Headaches are among the most commonly occurring ailments in the world. More than half of all women report having tension headaches at some point, and one-third of all men report the same. In the U.S., 20% of women and 10% of men said they had a severe headache at some point in the past three months. Multiple factors can trigger a headache, depending on the type. In some cases, a headache is due to neck pain.
Learn more about the connection between pain in the neck and headaches below and what to do for headaches caused by neck pain.
Understanding how these issues are connected makes it easier to see how to help headaches from neck pain. Your neck and head are closely related, so it should be no surprise that a pain in the neck can also cause a headache. The connection between the two depends largely on the cause of your neck pain and the type of headaches you experience.
The neck is also called the cervical spine. It’s made up of seven bones responsible for supporting the head and allowing nerves to travel from the spine to the brain. When any part of the neck is injured or strained, pain can occur. Some common causes of neck pain include:
If you are wondering why your neck pain is giving you headaches, there are several reasons. Neck pain is often associated with several different types of headaches. In some cases, pain in the neck is causing headaches. In others, muscles located at the base of the skull and the top of the neck contribute to headache pain. Additionally, neck pain can occasionally be a symptom of certain types of headaches.
Knowing how to treat headaches caused by neck pain is easier if you understand the types of issues neck discomfort can cause. A headache due to neck pain might be one of the following:
A cervicogenic headache is an example of referred pain. It’s a pain in the neck that you feel in your head. People often develop cervicogenic headaches after an injury that causes whiplash or as a result of a pinched nerve in the neck. Arthritis, neck sprains or a neck fracture can also lead to cervicogenic headaches. Sleep position and your posture at work might also trigger this type of headache.
The signs of a cervicogenic headache are somewhat different from other types of headaches. Often, you’ll feel pain on one side of the head. The pain might start at the bottom of your skull and feel as if it is traveling up one side of the head. Your neck might feel stiff, too, and you might have discomfort when you turn your neck from one side or the other. Some people also have pain around one eye or pain when they cough or sneeze.
Without treatment, cervicogenic headaches can occur frequently and cause severe enough pain to be debilitating. If you have signs of a cervicogenic headache, speaking with an orthopedic surgeon can help you pinpoint the cause of the pain and determine the best way to treat it.
A pinched nerve in the neck can trigger pain in the head known as occipital neuralgia. An injury to the neck, tightness in the muscles or a condition like arthritis can cause a pinched nerve. When someone has occipital neuralgia, pain shoots through the occipital nerve. The pain can feel similar to that of an electric shock. People often describe it as stabbing and sharp.
Other symptoms of occipital neuralgia include pain at the base of the skull, pain with neck movement and pain behind one of the eyes. It can also make the scalp very sensitive. Some people experience enough sensitivity that it is difficult to put their head down on a pillow.
Occipital neuralgia is relatively rare. Since it shares some symptoms in common with migraine headaches, the two can be confused.
If you’re experiencing shooting pains across your scalp or skull, speaking with a doctor about your symptoms and your past medical history can help you get an accurate diagnosis and begin a treatment plan.
While in some cases, pain in the neck causes headaches, in others, headaches can cause neck pain. Some types of headaches that are also associated with neck pain include:
A tension headache is the most common. When someone has a tension headache, they may feel like a band is squeezing around their forehead, putting pressure on the head. The pain is usually all over the head, not just one side or the other. Some people also feel pain in the back of the neck and their shoulders when they have a tension headache. But tension headaches don’t exactly come from neck pain.
While the exact cause of tension headaches isn’t known, they seem connected to stress. People with high stress levels often report having tension headaches. Poor posture and repetitive movements can also contribute to tension headaches. The suboccipital muscles, found in the neck, often become inflamed and tender when someone has a tension headache.
There are two types of tension headaches. Episodic headaches often develop as a result of stress. Once the stressful situation is over, the headache usually eases up. Chronic headaches frequently occur, sometimes on a daily basis.
Migraines are another common headache type, affecting around 12% of people in the U.S. While the pain from a tension headache is often dull, migraines typically cause throbbing pain. The pain is usually located on one side of the head and might be in the neck, too. For a while, it wasn’t clear if neck pain triggered migraines or if it was a symptom of a migraine. One study suggested that neck pain was a symptom of the headache and not a cause of the headache itself.
After you’ve figured out the cause of your neck pain and headaches, there are things you can do at home to help ease the pain and start to feel better. Here’s how to relieve headaches caused by neck pain:
1. Improve Workplace Ergonomics
Adjusting how you work is good for preventing headaches caused by pain in the neck. How you sit at work can put strain and pressure on your neck. If possible, adjust the height of your monitor so you are looking directly at it rather than up or down.
If you sit, choose a chair that is the appropriate height for you. Your feet should rest flat on the floor when you sit, and your knees should be a few inches from the edge of the chair. If you have to look down at paperwork while on the job, consider getting a stand to hold the documents at eye level so you aren’t constantly bending your neck.
2. Improve Your Posture
Your posture has a significant effect on how your neck feels. If you regularly slouch, you put a lot of extra weight on the head and neck, leading to pain and discomfort.
The first step toward improving your posture is becoming aware of it. When you stand, notice the angle of your back, neck and shoulders. Try to stand up as tall and straight as possible. That means pulling in your stomach and pushing your shoulders back slightly. Your head should be level as if you are balancing a book on it.
Good posture is also critical when you sit, whether you’re at a desk, a table or watching TV. When you sit, make sure there is something behind your back to support and keep you from slumping forward.
3. Improve Your Sleep
Improving your sleep can mean changing your sleep position and making sure you’re getting enough sleep. You want to support the head and neck as you sleep. Often, that means laying on your back or side, using a pillow that provides enough support to keep the head level. If your head dips down while you’re sleeping, you’re likely to wake up with a pain in the neck.
Not getting enough sleep can make you more stressed and lead to chronic headaches. One way to make sure you’re getting enough sleep is to create a schedule for yourself. Commit to going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Try to do something relaxing before you turn in so your body gets the message it’s time to sleep.
4. Exercise More
Increasing the amount of physical activity you get can help reduce neck pain and lessen your headaches. Some types of exercise are better for headache relief than others. Choose low-impact activities that focus on calming the body, such as yoga or gentle stretching. A light cardio routine, such as taking a walk, can also help ease headache pain. Going for a walk also lets you enjoy nature and the sunlight, reducing your stress levels, further helping relieve your headache pain.
5. Schedule a Massage
A massage can help relax the neck area muscles that might contribute to your headache pain. How massage helps ease muscle strain and tension depends on the type you choose. It’s a good idea to research before scheduling a massage to ensure the therapist has experience working with people who have head and neck pain.
If you don’t want to book an appointment with a massage therapist, you can try to ease tension in the neck muscles yourself by gently rubbing them. Applying firm but gentle pressure to the area can also help ease the pain.
6. Manage Your Stress
If you have chronic headaches caused by neck pain and high levels of stress in your life, finding ways to lower your stress levels can help improve your pain over time. Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, massage and exercise, can help calm you down and ease your stress levels. Along with finding ways to relax, it’s also important to make room in your schedule for things you enjoy doing.
Finding room in your schedule can mean cutting back on certain other activities. If you are overburdened at work, you might need to set more boundaries, such as only answering emails and phone calls during business hours. If possible, outsource certain tasks, both at work and home. For example, have your kids wash the dishes after dinner or your partner take out the trash each week. Ask an administrative assistant to take over scheduling meetings for you.
Journaling and creating to-do lists can also help alleviate your stress and ease your neck and headache pain. When you journal, you can focus on writing about the things you’re thankful for or record your thoughts and feelings from the day. A to-do list lets you see what you need to accomplish and gives you an idea of what you can delegate or eliminate.
7. Try Heat and Cold
Whether heat or cold will help ease a headache due to neck pain depends on the type of headache. For a migraine, try applying a cold compress or ice pack to your head to get relief. Apply the compress for 15 minutes, then take a 15-minute break and repeat. If you have a tension headache and neck pain, try putting a warm cloth or heating pad on the area where you feel pain.
If you have neck pain and headaches, figuring out what is causing the pain can help you get relief. At DISC, our team of specialists at practices throughout the greater Phoenix, Arizona, area can diagnose your condition. We can then offer you relief tips for headaches caused by neck pain.
We always recommend the least invasive options first. You might see improvement with conservative solutions like heat and cold, relaxation techniques or medication. If your neck pain and headaches continue, surgery might be the best option to help you get the relief you want. To learn more, contact DISC today to schedule an appointment.