Neck pain and headaches are often connected because a stiff neck, herniated cervical disc, or irritated spinal nerves can cause headaches. Headaches that result from neck discomfort or neck injury are called cervicogenic headaches. Pain in the back of your neck and head can also cause severe cluster-like headaches or tension headaches.
Neck pain and headache pain can cause a dull nagging, persistent pain in your neck or head. Depending on the cervical nerves affected, you may experience sharp shooting pains at the back of your skull, temple, or behind one eye. This type of headache pain can feel as if someone is stabbing you. Pains in the back of your head or neck pain can also travel down your spine and cause middle back pain or weakness in your shoulders.
A stiff neck that is a result of neck pain can also affect the range of motion in your upper body and head. For example, turning your head from side to side could aggravate the headache. Or, the neck pain could be so severe when you move your head that you have to move your whole body instead of your neck.
In this article, I will look at the various reasons why neck pain can cause headaches. Here you will also learn how to prevent neck pain and what you can do to relieve neck pain and headaches. You will also find answers to the question: when should you be concerned about a headache?
The Anatomy of the Neck
Your neck consists of 7 vertebrae that make up the top part of your spine or cervical spine. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that the back of your neck also contains important nerves that form part of your spinal cord. You also have trapezius muscles at the back of your neck.
The first vertebra (C1) attaches to the base of your skull and the last cervical vertebra (C7) attaches to the thoracic part of the spine that is at the top of your shoulder blades. Dr. Michael B. Furman, who is an expert in spinal conditions, says that between each vertebra are small jelly-like discs that act as shock absorbers.
Dr. Vinod K Panchbhavi, Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Texas, says that there are also important arteries in the neck that allow blood flow to the head and brain. Your neck is highly flexible and allows you to turn and flex your head in many directions.
Any issue with the cervical discs in your neck, ligaments, neck muscles, or vertebrae can be a source of pain in the back of the head at the base of your skull and cause a neck headache.
How Neck Pain Can Cause Headache
Because there are many factors that can cause a stiff neck, neck pain, and headaches, it can be difficult to diagnose the exact cause.
Dr. Michael B. Furman (quoted earlier) says that tears or splits in the cervical discs can push on the root of the spinal nerves. This can cause sharp shooting pains in the head, neck, and middle spine. Other degenerative cervical disc conditions can also result in burning neck pain and nagging headaches at the back of your head.
According to doctors from Harvard Medical School, cervical headaches can also result from issues with your scalp or muscles and joints of the neck. This can cause headache pain that feels as if your head is being squeezed in a vice. Or, neck pain and headache pain can become throbbing-like pain that could be due to blood vessels in your neck or head functioning abnormally. One of more of these problems can result in head pain with varying degrees of intensity.
Symptoms of Neck Pain and Headaches
Neck pain at the base of your skull and headaches aren’t the only symptoms of neck muscle strain or herniated cervical discs.
Dr. William C. Shiel, an expert in rheumatology, explains that other symptoms of a neck headache can include any of the following:
Neck pain that results in a stiff neck and problems moving your neck
Shoulder pain caused by a pinched shoulder nerve
Weakness in one of your arms due to neck pain or inflammation of your cervical spine
A tingling sensation running over your shoulder blade and down one arm. You may also feel “pins and needles” at the base of your skull.
Bruises and/or swelling if the neck pain and back of the head pain has been caused by an injury.
Neck Pain and Headaches - Common Causes
Let’s look in more detail at some of the common reasons for neck pain and headache pain.
Any kind of damage to the vertebrae or nerves in your neck can cause a stiff neck that results in pain because your muscles tense up.
Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet says that a stiff neck can also be the result of damage or issues with the structures or organs in your neck. This can be caused by swollen occipital lymph glands, tense neck muscles, or other organs. The result can be neck headaches, dull pains in your shoulder, and stiff shoulders.
Sometimes a stiff neck is a cause for concern. Doctors from the Mayo Clinic says that meningitis can trigger a stiff neck, severe pulsating headaches, and a sudden high fever. If you notice any of these symptoms and the headache become relenting, you should seek medical care.
For easy ways to relieve headache pain caused by a stiff neck, please read my article on how to treat a stiff neck in less than 60 seconds.
Bad Pillow or Mattress
Waking up in the morning with neck pain and a headache caused by a stiff neck could be due to a bad pillow or mattress.
According to researchers from Harvard Medical School, sleeping on a comfortable mattress with a proper supporting pillow can do much to prevent waking up with neck pain and a thumping headache. Researchers also say that your sleeping position should also support your spine and the natural curve of your neck.
Ways to avoid headaches and back pain in the morning include:
Sleeping on your side or back to support the curve of your spine
Choosing a “memory foam” pillow that supports your cervical spine better
Don’t use a pillow that is too high or stiff
Another cause for a stiff neck that results in headaches and neck pain is tension in the muscles at the base of your skull.
Dr. Neil Lava who specializes in neurological conditions says that tightened muscles at the base of the skull or back of the neck can result in tension headaches. Usually, a buildup of stress, anxiety, or lack of sleep is to blame for tension headaches. This can cause thumping headaches in your temples, the front of your head, or top of your head.
Some other symptoms of tension-related headaches are:
Feeling fatigued throughout the day
Increased sensitivity to light
Feeling more irritable
To help relieve tension headaches, you can try one of my natural remedies using essential oils for headache relief.
A pinched nerve in the cervical area of your spine can cause shooting neck pains that radiate to your head.
Many sensory nerve fibers are located in your spinal cord in the upper cervical area of your spine. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reports that pinched cervical nerves can cause a cervicogenic headache or a cervical headache. This can cause headache pain like a migraine attack that feels as if something is thumping in your head.
Researchers say that other symptoms of a pinched nerve include:
Stiff neck and pain in the back of the neck
Pain that radiates to the shoulder and/or lower back
Throbbing sensation in the back of the head
Headaches that are caused by moving the neck
Tenderness of the scalp and back of the neck
Herniated Cervical Disc
A ruptured disc in your cervical spine can cause excruciating pain in the back of your neck and head. The soft discs in between the vertebrae in your upper spine can become damaged and bulge out of the spinal column. This can press on a nerve causing shooting, electric-like pains along the length of the nerve.
According to Dr. William H. Blahd on WebMD, herniated discs most commonly occur in the cervical spine and lumbar spine. This pressure on the nerve can cause intense pain, pain when moving or bending your neck, or tingling in your arms and legs.
Degenerative spinal condition like arthritis can be another reason for a headache at the back of your head or neck.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis of the spine (the main cause of wear and tear) can cause frequent headaches that are mild to severe. Sometimes, the reasons for the headaches could have a secondary cause. For example, rebound head pain from regularly taking painkillers for arthritis could result in headaches. Or, fibromyalgia could cause pain in the upper spine and head.
If you suffer from arthritis pain, please read my article on the best natural remedies for arthritis. There you can find out what to do about painful inflammation in joints and which foods to avoid if you have arthritis.
Cluster headaches can cause excruciating head pain and neck pain that comes on suddenly and just affects one side of your head.
Doctors from the Mayo Clinic say that cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of headaches you can experience. They cause intense pain behind one eye and occur quickly. Doctors say that cluster headaches can radiate pain to your neck, face, and shoulders.
Recurring pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull could be caused by occipital neuralgia. The upper part of your neck and the back of the head contain occipital nerves that can become very painful when irritated.
According to Dr. Danette C. Taylor on MedicineNet, occipital neuralgia can cause sharp, jabbing pains in the back of the neck where it joins the base of the skull. Other people say that headache pain from occipital neuralgia feels like a dull throbbing ache at the back of the head.
Other symptoms of occipital neuralgia include:
Pain that spreads from the back of the head to the forehead
Sensitivity to light or sound
Tenderness of the scalp
Pain when moving the neck
Herpes Simplex Virus
The herpes simplex virus 2 that causes genital herpes can cause nerve pain that affects the back of your neck and cause headaches.
According to the journal Archives of Neurology, the herpes simplex virus and neck pain are often connected. Doctors have found that a stiff neck, recurring headaches, and fever are among some of the first symptoms of herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2). As the infection progresses, a person may feel buttock pain, lower back pain, and itching around the genitals.
Pain in the Back of Neck and Head: How to Relieve the Pain Without Medication
In many cases, there are effective home remedies that can help to get rid of a headache that starts in the back your neck. Let’s look at some of the best ways to get rid of a neck headache.
A heat pack placed on the nape of your neck at the base of your skull can help to loosen stiff muscles and reduce irritation in sore joints. Heat is also good for easing arthritis pain and increasing the range of motion in your neck.
Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic say that heat wraps can stop muscle spasms in the neck that cause headaches. Also, people with osteoarthritis in the neck usually feel that heat pads alleviate the pain quickly. However, in some cases, ice packs can work better for tension headaches and cluster headaches.
You can also use a tennis ball to relieve various types of nerve pain, including headache pain that starts at the back of the neck.
This is what you should do to help alleviate neck pain and headaches quickly:
Lie on your back and place the tennis balls where your neck joins the back of your head. Let the weight of your head press down on the tennis ball sock. Gently move your head from side to side and back and forth to help release tension from pinched nerves or tense neck muscles. Continue the gentle motion for a few minutes. Repeat a few times daily to help get rid of knots in the neck at the base of your skull and release headache pain.
Gently massaging the back of your neck and base of your skull can help to relax your neck muscles, release pressure from a pinched nerve, and give relief from headache pain.
Dr. William H. Blahd on WebMD recommends massaging the painful area between your shoulders, top of your neck, and back of your head for quick pain relief. This helps to increase blood circulation to the affected area and relieve pain naturally without using medication.
Another great way to get rid of a stiff neck that is causing headaches and neck pain is to perform simple stretching exercises.
Doctors from the Cleveland Clinic say that stretching a stiff neck can help to release tension from your neck muscles and ligaments and also strengthen your neck. This helps to prevent injuries that can result in herniated cervical discs and severe pain.
The best stretches to release a stiff neck:
The beauty of this exercise to strengthen your upper back and get rid of back and neck pain is that you can do it while sitting at your desk or in the car.
Chiropractor or Physical Therapist
Sometimes, in the case of chronic neck pain that causes frequent headaches, a chiropractor or physical therapist can help get relief from back of the head pain.
According to the Journal of Prolotherapy, physical therapy or spinal manipulation can help to get rid of agonizing neck pain and stop the pain spreading to your head. Chiropractors or physical therapists can help release pressure on the root of cervical nerves to get rid of the pain. This can also alleviate accompanying symptoms of neck pain and headaches like tingling in the arms or a burning sensation in the shoulder blades.
When to See a Doctor
Usually, sore necks and headaches are quite literarily a “pain in the neck” but are usually nothing to worry about. Pinched nerves, tense muscles, and headaches are usually connected with lifestyle choices and can be relieved by home remedies.
However, when should you be concerned about a headache that results from a stiff neck or neck pain?
Doctors advise that you shouldn’t ignore severe neck pain and recurring thumping headaches. You should see a doctor for neck pain and headaches in the following circumstances:
The pain in your neck or headaches continue after a few weeks of using home remedies.
The pain from your sore neck causes numbness down one or both arms.
The neck pain at the base of the skull is the result of a serious injury or trauma.
You have a stiff neck along with a high fever, severe neck pain, and a headache.
Moving your head or coughing increases pain in the top or side of your head.
You have other neurological symptoms like seizures, slurred speech, or blurry vision.
Your painful headache causes tenderness around your temples.
You also have a painful red eye with head pain.
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