Treating the Link Between Migraines and Neck Pain

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migraine and neck pain

Persistent migraines and frequent headache attacks can lead to referred pain and stiffness in your neck. Alternatively, existing neck injuries or cervical spine disorders may be triggering your migraine symptoms. Neck braces can provide structural support and pain relief as part of an effective treatment approach for migraine-related neck pain.

Read on to learn more about common links between migraines and neck pain. You’ll also know how to alleviate migraine headaches and improve neck discomfort using braces, physical therapy, medication, and other techniques recommended by headache specialists and pain management doctors on our platform.

Can Headaches Cause Neck Pain?

Headaches and migraines can commonly cause radiating pain and muscle tension in the neck area. In fact, a study conducted in Musculoskeletal Science & Practice found that a considerable proportion, ranging from 73% to 90%, of people with migraines or tension-type headaches (TTH) also experience neck pain.

Additionally, existing muscle tightness in the neck and shoulders from poor posture can trigger headache onset. Headache disorders like tension, migraine, and cervicogenic headaches can all contribute to secondary symptoms of neck pain and reduced mobility of the cervical spine. 

Why does this happen? The referred pain pathways from the trigeminal and occipital nerves that supply the head and neck allow headaches to travel and cause discomfort down through the muscles and soft tissues of the neck

For example, the tingling aura and shooting head pain of a migraine attack can radiate into the neck via the upper spinal cord nerves like C1-C3. Alternatively, chronic tightness of the suboccipital muscles connecting the base of the skull to the neck will commonly precipitate cervicogenic headaches, as proven in a study featured in ScienceDirect

Can Migraines Cause Stiff Neck?

Absolutely, migraines can commonly cause moderate to severe neck pain and stiffness before, during, or after a headache attack. As explained above, the referral of pain signals from inflamed trigeminal nerves innervating your head can radiate down into the cervical spine area.

  • The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains that Trigeminal Neuralgia (TN), a type of chronic pain disorder, affects the trigeminal nerve, which provides feeling and nerve signaling to many parts of the head and face. TN is typically caused by a nerve injury or nerve lesion, and symptoms can include sudden, intense pain, typically on one side of the face

Additionally, stimulation of pain receptors in the blood vessels, muscles, and meninges surrounding the brain prompts localized inflammation. This triggers spasms and tension in nearby neck muscles like the trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, and suboccipitals.

Maintaining poor posture such as forward head position during a migraine attack also contributes to increased muscle stiffness and decreased mobility in the neck. 

What Is The Exact Connection Between Migraine And Neck Pain?

Based on our experience, this is due to the shared nerve network supplying both the blood vessels in the head and the muscles supporting the neck and shoulders.

Specifically, the trigeminal nerves provide sensory innervation to the meningeal blood vessels, brain tissue, facial muscles, and upper neck areas. During a migraine, trigeminal nerve signaling causes dilation of cerebral blood vessels and stimulation of pain receptors surrounding the head and cervical spine regions.

This means irritation of the trigeminal nerves can refer pain signals down the neck via the C2 and C3 nerve roots. Additionally, cervicogenic triggers like muscle tension, facet joint restrictions, trigger points, or poor posture place strain on the nerves traveling between the cervical spine and occiput, causing co-occurring neck and head pain.

A neuroscience perspective of physical treatment of headache and neck pain suggests that the frequent co-occurrence of headache and neck pain is attributed to common nociceptive innervation of the head and neck in the dorsal horn C1-2, located in the trigemino-cervical complex. This indicates that headache as well as neck pain can be perceived as referred pain.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Migraine Headache With Neck Pain?

When neck pain accompanies a migraine headache, distinguishing the symptoms of each condition can be difficult. Still, there are some characteristic signs and symptoms that point to a migraine attack also affecting the neck such as:

  • Muscle tightness, spasms, or stiffness in the neck on the same side as migraine pain

This reflects the migraine pain signals referring to the upper cervical spine area. This is supported by a Spine-health article, which describes severe throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head as a symptom of a migraine attack.

  • Pain or reduced mobility when moving the head and neck

A study in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that neck pain is a symptom of a migraine attack and that it can include a reduction in the range of movement for the neck. Based on our experience, this usually results from trigeminal inflammation and nerve irritation referring down into the cervical muscles. 

  • Tenderness and knotting in the shoulders and neck muscles

This is also supported by the same study in The Journal of Headache and Pain, which mentions that headaches can grow worse if you apply pressure to certain areas of the neck. Migraine-related inflammation can spread into this surrounding musculature.

  • Aching neck pain that feels better with massage and heat

This aspect of migraine-related neck pain improving with massage therapy is corroborated by Spine-health’s article on treating migraines. Their medical reviewers recommend massage as a non-drug technique to help prevent migraine episodes and alleviate headache symptoms. 

  • Nausea and light sensitivity along with neck tension

The Spine-health article lists sensitivity to light and sound, and nausea/vomiting as symptoms of a migraine attack. 

  • Inability to turn or tilt head during migraine due to neck stiffness

The cervical muscles essentially splint themselves due to inflammation. The Journal of Headache and Pain mentions stiffness and tightness in the neck as symptoms of a migraine. 

Are Neck Pain And Migraine Symptoms Of COVID?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients have reported increased headache, neck pain, and migraine symptoms. However, neck and head pain on their own are not definitive indicators of a COVID infection without other viral symptoms present.

Headache and muscle soreness can result as secondary symptoms from inflammation triggered by the body’s immune response to the COVID virus. Additionally, lying prone for long periods while sick with COVID can prompt the onset of neck, shoulder, and headache pain.

However, while neck pain and migraines can accompany COVID illnesses, they more commonly result from our everyday triggers and underlying conditions. The stress, isolation, and lifestyle changes brought on by COVID are likely exacerbating many patients’ migraine and cervical spine dysfunction.

If you develop new onset or worsening headaches and neck pain, getting evaluated by your doctor is always recommended. Your physician can determine whether your symptoms stem from COVID-19 or require investigation for other headache and pain disorders. 

What Are The Causes Of Migraine Neck Pain?

migraine and neck pain

There are a few notable reasons why neck pain and headaches commonly occur together. Migraine triggers like high stress, poor posture, eye strain, or existing neck injuries can initiate the inflammatory pain pathways in nerves supplying both the head and neck.

A systematic review and meta-analysis found that neck pain is a frequent complaint among patients with migraines and seems to be correlated with headache frequency. Neck pain was 12 times more prevalent in migraine patients compared to non-headache controls and two times more prevalent in patients with chronic migraine compared to episodic migraine.

  1. Degenerative cervical spine conditions 

These include issues like disc herniations, facet joint arthritis, or spondylosis can refer to radiating pain up into the base of the skull as severe migraine headaches. 

The American Migraine Foundation explains that cervicogenic headaches, which start in the cervical spine (neck region), can cause pain that goes from the neck to the head. As people age, cervicogenic headaches become more common due to changes in the cervical spine, such as arthritis or other neck problems that cause irritation of the occipital nerve

  1. Compression or irritation of the occipital nerves and muscles at the base of the head 

This is a frequent cause of cervicogenic headaches with secondary neck pain symptoms. The American Migraine Foundation also mentions occipital neuralgia, which causes pain due to irritation of the occipital nerve. This nerve is located in the back of the head and is connected to the cervical spine.

  1. Tight suboccipital muscles between the base of the skull and upper neck 

These muscles often develop trigger points that generate both headache and neck pain. This can lead to decreased stability, mobility, and strength in the cervical spine and craniocervical muscles, potentially causing abnormal loads and compensatory forward head posture.

How To Relieve A Headache With Neck Pain And Nausea?

Applying heat/ice packs, resting in a dark room, hydrating, massaging with oils, gentle stretches, posture fixes, and limiting triggers can provide home relief for migraine headaches and associated neck pain and nausea.

  • Cold therapy can decrease blood flow and reduce muscle spasms and inflammation, thereby relieving pain. An ice pack placed on the forehead, temple, or neck may be useful when treating neck pain and headaches. People who have migraines may find ice packs bring more relief than hot packs.
  • Some people find it helpful to lie down in a dark room when they have a migraine headache. For some, falling asleep can also alleviate the pain.
  • Dehydration can be a migraine trigger. Drinking enough water throughout the day may help prevent migraine episodes from occurring. Taking small sips of water may also help a person deal with some migraine symptoms, such as nausea.
  • Essential oils like lavender and peppermint may help relieve stress, anxiety, and headaches. A 2021 literature review found that there are 10 types of essential oil that contain components that could help ease migraine symptoms. These include lavender, peppermint, chamomile, and basil.
  • Massaging the muscles in the neck and shoulders may help relieve tension and alleviate migraine pain. A person may benefit from a professional massage or a self-massage.
  • Correcting your sitting or standing posture can help avoid straining muscles, which can contribute to headaches and neck pain.
  • Migraine triggers can include strong smells, bright screens, loud noises, and certain foods. Identifying and avoiding these triggers can help prevent or reduce the severity of migraine episodes.

What Is The Link Between Neck Pain And Migraine With Aura?

Migraine aura can trigger neck pain by activating trigeminal nerve fibers and prompting blood flow changes that irritate occipital nerves and inflame cervical muscles and soft tissues, making them more sensitive to pain signaling before or during migraine headaches. 

Here are all the explanations for this relationship:

  • Cortical spreading depression, the electrically based phenomenon underlying aura, activates trigeminal nerve fibers that supply the cervical spine muscles.
  • Blood flow changes triggered by the aura phase prompt inflammation and stiffness of cervical muscles and soft tissues.
  • Aura lowers the excitation threshold of the trigeminal system, increasing sensitivity to pain signals referring to the neck before or during the migraine headache phase.
  • Cerebral blood flow shifts prompted by the aura can irritate and inflame occipital nerves, referring pain into the suboccipital muscles connecting the neck to the head.

How To Get Rid Of Sinus Headache And Neck Pain?

A multifaceted approach combining warm compresses, saline rinses, anti-inflammatories, decongestants, hydration, humidification, stretches, and massage can effectively manage sinus headaches and neck pain.

  • Apply warm compresses to the face, neck, and shoulders to improve sinus drainage and relax tense muscles.
  • Use saline nasal rinses to flush out congestion and thin out mucus aggravating sinus inflammation.
  • Take anti-inflammatory over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce sinus-related headache and neck pain.
  • Try decongestants or nasal steroid sprays to shrink swollen sinus tissue putting pressure on nerves.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to thin out sinus secretions and prevent dehydration which can worsen headaches.
  • Use a humidifier or try steam inhalation to open and hydrate sinus passages for clearing congestion.
  • Practice gentle neck stretches, posture correction, and massage techniques to address muscle strain exacerbating neck aches.

For chronic or recurrent sinus headaches and neck pain, consulting an ENT doctor or neurologist on our platform can help get to the root causes of your discomfort. According to our experience, targeted treatment should help resolve your symptoms more effectively.

Join Kaly to Connect with Top Headache and Pain Management Physicians

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On our online platform, you can easily reach out and consult with top neurologists, headache specialists, spine experts, and pain management physicians. These doctors can evaluate your symptoms, diagnose any underlying cervicogenic or migraine conditions, and recommend integrated treatment plans, which may include neck braces for extra support.

Using Kaly to find experienced doctors and book appointments can help you start resolving your migraine headaches and neck pain much faster. Our network of trusted providers is ready to help evaluate and treat your symptoms so you can bid adieu to neck pain for good – or lessen its impact, at least.