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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 migraines.Here’s a look at some key ways neck problems can cause headaches:

Nerve compression

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.

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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The London Independent Hospital
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The London Independent Hospital
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60 Grove End Rd, London NW8 9NH

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Blackheath Hospital
40-42 Lee Terrace, Blackheath, London SE3 9UD

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27 Tooley St, London SE1 2PR

020 7407 3100

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164-178 Cromwell Rd, Kensington, London SW5 0TU

020 7460 2000

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Wellington Pl, London NW8 9LE

020 3733 5344

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17-19 View Rd, Highgate, London N6 4DJ

020 8341 4182

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Otima health
19 Harley St, Marylebone, London W1G 9QJ

020 7036 8800

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Harris Private and International Patient Unit, Great Ormond Street Hospital
Great Ormond St, London WC1N 3JH

020 7405 9200

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205-209 Great Portland St, London W1W 5AH

020 3627 1534

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