Can neck pain cause headaches? How problems in your neck could be giving you a headache
Neck pain and headaches are both extremely common and aren’t always
linked. But it is possible for neck pain and headache to co-exist, where
problems originating in a person’s neck are actually causing their head pain.
Sometimes referred to as ‘cervicogenic’ or ‘occipital’ headaches, the types of
head pain associated with them includes pain in the back of the head at the
base of the skull and neck, general tension-type headache, or headache and
neck pain on one side. In some cases, these headaches can even mimic
Here’s a look at some key ways neck problems can cause headaches:
When nerve roots in and around the cervical spine are compressed, pain may
travel upwards, resulting in headaches or pain around the base or side of the
skull. Cervical nerve compression can be caused by a number of things, such as
a herniated or prolapsed disc in the neck or spinal stenosis, where narrowing
of the spinal canal means nerves have left space.
Things like degenerative disc disease, cervical spondylosis and facet joint
disease in the neck – conditions generally associated with wear-and-tear
damage – can also be a factor in nerve compression and irritation that might
contribute to headaches.
How is this diagnosed and treated?
Diagnosing nerve compression as a root cause of pain is usually based on a
combination of things: A patient’s full symptom history (there might be pain,
pins and needles or numbness running down an arm too), physical
assessments by a specialist such as a physiotherapist, and findings from
imaging tests like MRI scans.
Conservative treatments are always the first step, including physiotherapy and
pain relief, and are often effective. In a smaller number of cases, further
treatments might be needed, such as nerve root or facet joint injections or cervical decompression surgery. Our treatment page and information video
explains more about this.
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Muscle tension and trigger points
Tension-type headaches are very common, and muscle tension originating in
the neck, upper shoulders and base of the skull can sometimes be a cause. This
might be due to muscular tenderness and fatigue, or ‘pinched’ or inflamed
nerves where muscles are the cause.
Muscle spasms and trigger points (‘knots’) in the neck may cause pain that’s
felt at the back of the head and up to the top of the scalp, although some
people may experience a generalised headache or pain in the eye area or jaw.
Often, the suboccipital muscles at the base of the skull are involved. These
help control small movements in the upper neck and can become tense and
inflamed due to things like poor desk set-up or injuries such as whiplash. A
common culprit these days is holding our heads too far forwards for extended
periods of time while leaning over laptops and smartphones!
How is this diagnosed and treated?
Muscle tension, spasms and trigger points are usually easy to diagnose via an
assessment with a specialist such as a physiotherapist, who will also suggest
exercises to help.
Pain-relief medications such as ibuprofen can help too, alongside things like
heat patches, but taking steps to eliminate the root ‘triggers’ is often key. This
might mean improving the ergonomics of your work station, being mindful of
smartphone use, and switching to a neck-friendly rucksack rather than a
shoulder bag. A physiotherapist will be able to advise on all of this, as well as
things like Pilates which can help improve strength and posture.
If you’re experiencing neck pain that hasn’t responded to conservative
treatments, our specialist team is here to help – book a consultation via our
enquiry form or call us on 020 3950 2409.
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