People may occasionally experience neck pain with a headache.
Keep reading for more information on the types of headaches that have associations with neck pain, how to treat them, and when to see a doctor.
A tension headache is a slow-building headache. Pain in the neck may often accompany a tension headache.
Fatigue, stress, and muscle strain are often underlying causes of tension headaches.
Tension headaches often cause a throbbing pain that affects both sides of the head. The pain may affect the back of the head and feel dull.
According to the American Migraine Association, a cervicogenic headache is a pain that results from conditions that affect the neck or cervical spine and its supporting bone and tissue.
In addition to head pain, a person may experience symptoms such as:
- a limited range of motion of their neck
- a headache that worsens as a result of specific movements
- increased headache pain due to pressure on the neck
- pain that typically occurs on one side of the head
- pain that starts in the back of the head or neck and travels to behind the eyes
The American Migraine Association note that there are connections between neck pain and migraines. A migraine is the result of a neurological condition that affects the brain.
Migraines often present in four phases. But a person may not experience each phase when they have a migraine. The phases include:
- Prodrome: This phase can start up to 24 hours before the migraine and may include food cravings, mood changes, fluid retention, increased urination, and uncontrolled yawning.
- Aura: This is a sensation of seeing flashing or bright lights. A person can experience this before or during their migraine.
- Headache: A migraine headache often involves severe throbbing on one side of the head. Other symptoms may include sensitivity to light, increased pain with movement, sneezing, coughing, or vomiting, and nausea.
- Postdrome: This results in a general feeling of exhaustion following the migraine headache that can last for about 24 hours.
According to a recent study of 50 participants, neck pain occurred alongside a migraine headache in about 90% of the people tested. The remaining 10% experienced neck pain at other points during their migraine. As a result, the researchers concluded that neck pain is not a trigger but instead a symptom of the migraine itself.
The following are some common treatments based on the type of headache a person may have.
Tension headaches often cause mild to moderate pain. In some instances, over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication or rest will reduce pain. But if the pain is persistent or occurs frequently, a person may need additional treatment options.
Some prevention tips for tension headaches include:
- eating regular meals and not skipping any
- managing stress
- getting regular rest
- exercising each day for at least 30 minutes
- avoiding triggers such as stress or lack of sleep
A person who has a cervicogenic headache should see their doctor for treatment. Since the headache is the result of an underlying condition in the neck, treatments focus on the neck.
Typical treatments for cervicogenic headaches can vary, but may include:
- using nerve blocks
- taking pain medication
- having physical therapy
- doing regular exercise
Similar to tension headaches, treatment for migraines often involves improving the symptoms and preventing future migraines.
Some standard treatment options include:
- using medications, such as pain relievers, triptan or ergotamine drugs
- resting in a dark, quiet room
- drinking plenty of fluids
- applying a cool damp cloth or ice pack on the forehead
- undergoing hormone therapy
- managing weight
- writing down things that trigger the migraine headaches and try to avoid them
- managing stress
Many people do not need to see their doctor for a headache. Often, taking OTC medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen or applying hot packs to the neck is enough to stop the headache.
According to the National Headache Foundation, a person should see their healthcare provider if:
- the headache does not go away or gets worse
- OTC medications do not stop the pain
- the characteristics of regular migraines or headaches change
- they need pain relievers for headaches more than twice per week
- the headache interferes with daily activities
- sexual activity, coughing, sneezing, exercise or bending over trigger the headache
- they develop nausea or dizziness
A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they experience the following symptoms with the headache:
- headache or migraine is the worst it has ever been
- loss of consciousness
- vomiting that will not stop
- loss of vision
- pain lasting more than 72 hours
- presence of unusual symptoms
- an intense “thunderclap” sensation in their head
- weakness or numbness of the face or arms
- slurred speech
- stiff neck and fever
Neck pain and headaches are often connected. Several types of headaches have links to neck pain, including some common ones, such as tension headaches and migraines.
Sometimes, a person may have an underlying problem with the neck that can cause a headache.
People should see their doctor or another healthcare professional if they are not sure what is causing their headache and neck pain, treatments are not working, or they experience other symptoms alongside the pain.