The Intimate Connection Between Neck Pain and Headaches

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Headaches and neck pain tend to go hand in hand. In fact, up to 70% of headache patients also experience neck pain. But why is there such an intimate connection between symptoms in these two areas of the body? 

The answer lies in the intricate anatomy and neurological pathways that link the structures of the neck to those in the head and brain.

How Neck Pain Causes Headaches

When neck muscles tighten and spasm from strain or joint dysfunction, it can irritate surrounding nerves that travel up into the head. This leads to suppression of normal nerve function, blood flow, and oxygen delivery which generates pain signals.

These sensations then radiate outwards, causing secondary headaches and migraines. Understanding this delicate relationship is key to finding relief if you regularly deal with the too-close-for-comfort combo of neck aches and head pain.

What Causes Neck Pain and Headaches?

Neck pain and headaches arise from a variety of overlapping causes. The specific source often depends on underlying factors and risk profiles. Those predisposed may experience symptoms under less strain than those with healthier structures can withstand.

The Link Between Neck Pain and Headaches

The neck contains vertebrae, joints, nerves and soft tissue that directly connects to similar structures in the head and brain. When injured or irritated, these structures relay pain signals up through the cervical nerves into the head.

Nerve impingement and inflammation where the cervical and occipital nerves meet can lead to cervicogenic headaches originating from the neck. Tight neck muscles may also limit proper blood flow to the brain.

Common Causes of Neck Pain

Poor posture puts abnormally excessive strain on the neck over long periods of time. Slouching to look at phones or laptops for hours on end places the head in a forward position that puts pressure on the cervical spine. Neck muscle tightness and spasms develop as they work to support the head against gravity. This compresses cervical joint spaces and intervertebral discs.

Direct injuries from accidents, sports, or whiplash can damage delicate soft tissues like muscles, ligaments and discs. 

Spinal degeneration from aging or arthritis narrows the spinal canal in the neck, reducing space for nerves and blood vessels. 

Even prolonged sleeping in odd positions can lead to a temporary stiff neck or “crick in the neck”.

Underlying spinal conditions like degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, bone spurs or herniated discs increase susceptibility.

Common Headache Triggers

Mental and physical strain are common headache triggers. Excessive worrying, lack of sleep, skipping meals, intense exercise and dehydration can all provoke head pain.

Head injuries, viral illnesses and conditions affecting blood vessels or brain health like strokes, aneurysms and brain tumors are also risk factors.

Symptoms and Types of Headaches With Neck Pain

Neck pain has a diverse range of associated symptoms and may contribute to various types of headache disorders. Identifying exactly where and how you are experiencing pain provides insight into the origin.

Symptoms of Neck Pain

Aching, throbbing discomfort, stiffness and reduced mobility are classic signs. 

Pain may be localized or radiate outwards into the shoulders and upper back. Moving the neck or turning the head often makes symptoms worse. Muscle tightness causes difficulty moving the chin to the chest or moving the head side to side.

Numbness, tingling and weakness in the shoulders, arms and hands might indicate nerve root compression.

Types of Neck-Related Headaches

Cervicogenic headaches are neck-based headaches caused by disorders in musculoskeletal structures of the neck that then trigger pain-signaling nerves.

Migraines are severe headaches that may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, vertigo and extreme light and sound sensitivity.

Tension headaches cause moderate pain described as tight, squeezing or pressure around the head.

Headache Symptom Differences

Migraine headache pain is often described as throbbing and typically occurs on one side. Other clues are sensitivity to light, sound and smells. Migraines can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours if untreated.

Tension headaches feel like constant dull, squeezing pain or tightness around the whole head or back of neck. They lack nausea and other migraine features.

Cervicogenic headaches start at the base of the head, neck or shoulders and then radiate upwards. Turning the head can increase pain on one side due to compressed nerves.

Below is a comparison of symptoms for different headache types:

Throbbing painTight squeezing painPain starting in neck/shoulders
Pain on one sideBand around headRadiating pain upwards
Light/sound sensitivityNo nauseaPain worsens with head turning
Nausea, vomitingMild-moderate painOne-sided pain

Diagnosing Neck Pain and Associated Headaches

Getting an accurate diagnosis is crucial to identify the origin of symptoms and rule out severe underlying problems. Doctors synthesize findings from your clinical history, physical examination, and medical tests.

Importance of Accurate Diagnosis

There are many types of headaches and neck pain with overlapping symptoms but vastly different causes. Migraines, tension headaches, cervicogenic headaches and sinus headaches may feel somewhat similar but have different optimal treatments.

Diagnostic errors could lead to inappropriate care, for example missing a brain tumor causing apparent “migraine” symptoms.

Diagnostic Approaches

Doctors first take a detailed history asking about the nature, timing, location, severity and possible triggers of your pain.

They perform a neurological exam checking muscle strength, reflexes and nerve function. 

Range of motion and manual palpation assesses neck mobility and areas of muscle spasm.

Imaging like x-ray, MRI or CT scans help evaluate bone, disc and soft tissue structures.

Ruling Out Serious Conditions

It’s vital to rule out red flag symptoms like sudden severe headaches, fever, cognitive changes and neurological deficits that can indicate infections, vascular disorders or brain lesions.

Doctors determine if neck pain may arise from structural issues like disc herniations, spinal stenosis or osteoarthritis that impinge nerves. They evaluate how pain patterns correlate to nerve root locations.

Chronic headaches and migraine features provide clues to those primary headache disorders.

Treating Neck Pain vs. Treating Headaches

Should treatment target neck pain or associated headaches? It depends on their origin and relationship. Sometimes resolving one will improve the other.

For cervicogenic headaches clearly stemming from muscular, joint or nerve issues in the neck, treating the underlying cervical condition is key. This may include physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, massage and nerve blocks or medications if neurological in nature. As the neck dysfunction improves, so should referred head pain.

With primary headache disorders like chronic migraine unrelated to specific neck injury, management focuses on preventing migraine attacks themselves.

 Migraine-specific medications, lifestyle modifications, trigger management, and pain relievers during attacks are often prescribed. Co-occurring neck pain and stiffness is considered a symptom of migraine activity versus the cause. Relieving neck pain alone rarely stops true migraines.

In many cases, a dual treatment approach addressing both neck pain and head pain is warranted. Neck-specific therapies bring relief to that area, while headache prevention and abortive methods manage associated migraine or tension headaches. Lifestyle measures like stress reduction and pain coping skills help minimize flare ups from both regions.

Taking Control of Your Neck and Headache Treatment

If you regularly deal with the nagging duo of neck pain and headaches, finding the right specialist is key to getting proper diagnosis and tailored treatment. 

With Kaly, instantly connect with top-rated neurologists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and pain management doctors in your area that specialize in addressing neck pain and associated headaches. Simply answer questions about your specific symptoms and pain patterns to get matched with providers experienced in treating your type of neck and head issues. 

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