Neck pain is a common complaint for as many as 1 in 3 adults in the United States. Oftentimes, the pain subsides quickly without much issue. Other times, the neck pain lingers and causes troubling headaches. Though not all neck issues will lead to this, it has many people wondering: What neck pain causes headaches?
It can be challenging to know if the headache pain you are experiencing stems from your neck. However, it’s important to know what neck pain causes headaches so that you can get more accurate treatment. Follow along below with 3 of the most common types of headaches caused by neck pain to see if your experiences match up, and to know what you can do to relieve some of the discomfort.
1. Neck muscle tension
The muscles in your neck respond to every movement you consciously or unconsciously make. They tighten and relax depending on your posture. They control many of your head motions, from nodding yes to throwing your head back in laughter. But the muscles in the neck are particularly prone to getting knots.
More accurately, the neck muscles have a lot of strain on them that can cause them to tighten up and go into spasm. This creates tension throughout the neck and the head. Many people end up with tension headaches because of neck muscles that are tight or spasming.
People who wonder, “What neck pain causes headaches?” are often the same people who frequently experience tension headaches, which is the most common type of headache. Often, people with neck pain that leads to tension headaches describe the sensation as a dull, throbbing pain, as though there is a tight band around the forehead. Tension headaches range in severity and duration.
There are a few key causes behind this type of neck and head tension, including:
- Poor posture
- Physical and emotional stress
- Sleeping in certain positions
Sometimes, your occupation can trigger tension headaches, not just because of the stress of the job but because of the physical movement (or lack thereof). Looking up at a computer screen, for example, can make certain muscles tighten in your neck. Also, doing any repetitive pushing or pulling motions can easily fatigue the muscles in your neck and lead to tension.
Another factor that influences muscle tension is sleep. Getting quality rest is essential in combating neck pain that leads to headaches. Experts suggest lying either on your back or your side with your spine in a straight line with your head and feet. Furthermore, research shows that even the height of your pillows can make or break a good night’s sleep. It’s important to create these good sleep hygiene habits, as they can help you to increase your energy levels and decrease your pain.
In addition to these tips, practicing techniques to keep up on your mental health wellness can be a good way to reduce stress that leads to tension headaches. Studies show that conditions such as depression are linked to neck and head pain. Additionally, having chronic pain in your neck or other areas of the body can easily result in more emotional distress.
To help yourself reduce tension physically and emotionally, you might try:
- Gentle stretches
- Applying heat
- Joining chronic pain support groups
2. Occipital neuralgia
Occipital neuralgia is another type of headache that is directly linked to neck pain. The term “neuralgia” refers to the fact that it is the nerves in the neck that are affected by this condition. When pinched, inflamed, or irritated, the nerves react by sending pain signals from the source of the pain—the neck—and up into the head.
The nerves in the neck can be impacted easily by joint inflammation, muscle tension, or spine misalignment. As with tension headaches, posture and sleep position influence nerve pain as well. Additionally, occipital neuralgia pain can sometimes be triggered by a neck injury, such as whiplash, but it is also common in those who experience chronic neck pain from underlying medical conditions.
This pain is often much sharper than the dull throbbing of a tension headache. People who experience occipital neuralgia often have shooting pain on one side of the head, at the base of the skull, and throughout the upper region of the neck. When the pain is particularly bad, it might hurt to touch the top of the head. Similar to a migraine headache, occipital neuralgia can also make people’s eyes extra sensitive to bright lights.
In many cases, people aren’t able to discern exactly what causes the occipital neuralgia to flare up. Because of this, the pain can be difficult to diagnose and to treat. However, some patients opt to have steroid injections or a nerve block to get relief from the neck and head pain. Other patients go the route of medical massage, physical therapy, or other forms of therapy to release some of the tightness in the neck. These treatment options can help with other types of headaches, too, like tension headaches and cervicogenic headaches.
3. Cervicogenic headache
One more answer to the question, “What neck pain causes headaches?” would be cervicogenic headaches. According to medical professionals, cervicogenic headaches typically have the following characteristics:
- Pain begins on one side
- Pain is triggered by neck movement
- Limited range of motion in neck
What’s important to note about cervicogenic headaches is that the pain is chronic. This means that the neck and head pain lasts for a prolonged period of time. The pain associated with this type of headache can be a combination of the pain caused by tension headaches or irritated nerves.
People can experience tender muscles on the side of the neck that is specifically affected by this. While this sounds similar to neck pain that causes tension headaches, the symptoms vary slightly. The distinctive element to this is that it is a secondary headache pain that comes with this condition. This means that the pain is actually happening in the neck and the headache is a side effect. Thus, if the issue that is causing the neck pain is addressed, usually the headache will subside.
The Next Steps
Knowing what neck pain causes headaches can help you to figure out the next steps for treatment. As mentioned above, a combination of treatment options can be effective in reducing the symptoms of neck and head pain. Physical therapy, nerve blocks, and sleeping right can all influence your experiences with neck pain and the headaches that come as a result.
Of course, be sure to get additional information about what neck pain causes headaches based on your specific symptoms. Generally, you will want to seek medical advice for any pain that starts suddenly or without obvious cause (such as an injury) to rule out any other serious conditions and to find a pain management plan that works best for you.
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