Can neck pain cause headaches?

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Neck Pain

If neck pain and headaches are putting a damper on your day, you may be wondering if they are related. The simple answer is yes: Neck pain can cause headaches and vice versa. The reason why they are related can be as complex as the intricate network of muscles, nerves, blood vessels, tendons, ligaments and bones that make up the neck and head region. Due to this complex relationship, it can be easy for one issue to cause the other. 

How the neck and head region are connected

The neck and head are connected through a complex network of soft tissue, blood vessels and bones. This connection allows coordinated movement, sensation and function between the two regions. The cervical spine, or neck, helps support the weight of the head and allows movement in multiple directions. The neck is surrounded by muscles, tendons and ligaments that play a crucial role in supporting the head and neck. The nerves that branch out from the neck go to other parts of the head, including the scalp, face and jaw. Issues in the spine or neck muscles can cause referred pain that can spread to the head, causing you to have a headache. 

Causes of neck pain

Neck pain can be due to a variety of issues, including:

  • Muscle strain.
  • Cervical disc herniation.
  • Cervical spinal stenosis.
  • Pinched nerve.
  • Arthritis.
  • TMJ disorder.
  • Poor posture. 
  • Sleep position.
  • Previous injury.

Types of headaches caused by neck pain

Neck pain can trigger a range of headaches, including:

  • Tension headaches — Tension headaches can cause dull, aching pain that wraps around your head. These headaches are usually triggered by muscle tension and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.
  • Cervicogenic headaches — This type of headache starts in the neck but is felt in the head. They are usually felt on one side of the head. They can also include neck stiffness and a reduced range of motion. 
  • Migraines — Migraines can have a variety of triggers. Neck pain and tension can make migraine symptoms worse or more frequent. 
  • Occipital neuralgia — Occipital neuralgia is a rare condition that is characterized by shooting or stabbing pain in the back of the head and neck. It is caused by irritation or compression of the occipital nerves. Neck pain can make these symptoms worse, leading to severe headaches. 

How to relieve headaches caused by neck pain

Effective management of headaches caused by neck pain involves addressing the underlying issue of the neck pain and the symptoms of the headache. Some strategies that can be effective in alleviating symptoms can include:

  • Posture correction — Maintaining good posture can help reduce the strain on your neck muscles and alleviate tension headaches. 
  • Therapeutic exercises — Doing gentle neck stretches and strengthening exercises can help improve your muscle flexibility and strength. These therapeutic exercises can promote proper alignment to improve posture and reduce neck pain and headaches. 
  • Stress management — Stress can be a common trigger for neck pain and headaches. Doing relaxation techniques can help reduce stress-related tension in your head and neck.
  • Sleep — Taking care to get an adequate amount of sleep with good sleep positions can help alleviate neck pain and reduce the frequency of your headaches.
  • Hydration — Staying properly hydrated helps transport nutrients to your cells. It can also help with muscle soreness and tension, which can help you keep optimal spinal health and ward off headaches. 
  • Medication — Over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate inflammation and headache symptoms. In some cases, your health care provider may prescribe muscle relaxers to help with muscle tension. 
  • Physical therapy Physical therapy can help address musculoskeletal imbalances and dysfunction to relieve neck pain and headaches. 

Physical therapy for headaches caused by neck pain

Several manual therapy techniques may be used by your physical therapist to help target specific areas of tension and promote pain relief:

  • Manual therapyManual therapy is ideal for identifying and addressing areas of tension in the muscles. Your physical therapist will apply precise pressure and controlled movements to targeted areas of your neck. They will use their skilled hands to decrease nervous system sensitivity and pain. 
  • Dry needling — Your physical therapist may use dry needling to help promote muscle relaxation and alleviate pain. They will manually insert thin, sterile needles into specific points along your neck muscles that are responsible for causing your tension and pain. As the needles penetrate your skin, they can stimulate the release of tight muscle bands, promote circulation and trigger your body’s natural healing process. 
  • Graston Technique® — Using a set of specialized tools of the Graston Technique, your physical therapist will gently glide the tools over your skin, feeling for areas of adhesions or scar tissue. Using controlled pressure, they will use the tools to break down these adhesions to help promote tissue healing and improved muscle function. You might experience a mild scraping sensation, but it’s part of the process of alleviating headache-inducing tension in your neck and surrounding muscles. 
  • Mulligan technique — Your physical therapist may also take you through the Mulligan technique. These pain-free movements are designed to help restore proper joint alignment and function in your neck. They will help you do gentle oscillations and stretches to explore your neck’s range of motion. They will apply gentle and precise pressure while you move to help retrain your muscles and joints, helping to reduce pain and improve your flexibility. 

Relief from neck pain and headaches can be within reach at Forever Fit Physical Therapy & Wellness

At Forever Fit Physical Therapy & Wellness, we understand the intricate relationship between neck pain and headaches. We know the challenges and impact they can have on your life and strive to tailor compassionate and personalized care to help address the root cause of your discomfort. Through a combination of evidence-based techniques, we can help alleviate tension, promote healing and restore function in your neck and head. Our goal is to empower you to regain control over your life and improve your overall well-being. 

Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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