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Can neck pain cause headaches? (And what can I do if it does?)

Neck pain on its own can affect your ability to do basic movements in your daily life like nod your head or turn to look out the car window. But what if your neck pain is coupled with headaches?

Even though some may think that neck pain and headaches aren’t connected, that’s not always the case. There are several reasons why pain in your neck could result in a headache.

When you’re having pain that feels like it’s radiating from your forehead down to the top of your spine, it can feel like nothing can help. But that’s where we come in. 

Read on to learn about how common it is to feel headaches triggered by neck pain, possible ways that they are linked and physical therapy techniques that can alleviate both types of pain.

The commonality of headaches triggered by neck pain

Neck pain and headaches aren’t as unlikely of a pairing as one may think, as people will likely experience both at least once in their lifetime. Neck pain on its own has an annual prevalence rate of more than 30%. Headaches are even more common, with an annual prevalence rate of about 50%

With these high percentages, there is bound to be some overlap. For example, more than 65% of people with migraine headaches experience neck pain at the same time.

4 potential links between neck pain and headaches

There are several conditions that can start with neck pain and lead to headaches. Some are caused by daily wear and tear, while others can stem from traumatic blows to the body.

A few causes of headaches that are triggered by neck pain include:

  1. Whiplash — When your head is rapidly moved back and forth, you may experience a neck injury called whiplash. Neck stiffness and pain are initial symptoms of the injury, but headaches are a common symptom of whiplash as well.
  1. Muscle strain — People often feel a strain in their neck muscles due to poor posture or after overextending their neck to look down at their phone for long periods of time. A muscle strain in your neck can cause pain and stiffness, as well as possible headaches. Looking at a screen for hours can also contribute to your headache.
  1. Meningitis — This infection refers to inflammation of the membrane surrounding the spinal cord and brain. A stiff neck is one of the most common meningitis symptoms, along with headaches.
  1. Cervicogenic headache — This headache is actually referred pain, meaning that the pain is stemming from a place other than the real source. In this case, the headache is caused by a neck issue, such as an injury, a pinched nerve or arthritis.

4 physical therapy techniques to help ease neck pain and headaches caused by neck pain

Neck pain is a common reason that people seek out physical therapy. And when that pain causes headaches, the therapist knows the techniques needed to help alleviate both problems by focusing on the scar tissue or tight areas in the neck.

Here are four physical therapy techniques that can help neck pain as well as headaches caused by neck pain:

  1. Soft tissue mobilization — The tension that causes your pain is trapped in tight areas and/or scar tissue in your neck. Soft tissue mobilization refers to a physical therapist using massagelike motions with their hands around the affected area to break up any scar tissue and release the tension and trapped fluid that may be causing the pain in both your neck and head.
  1. Joint mobilization — This is a technique that tackles the muscles and tendons surrounding your neck joints that may have a reduced range of motion due to the pain. By manipulating the joints with their hands, the physical therapist can find the restrictive soft tissue in the muscles or tendons to break it up and increase your neck’s mobility as well as alleviate your headache.
  1. Dry needling — A popular technique for neck pain is dry needling, which refers to thin, sterile needles that are used to insert into the skin into your tight neck muscles. The goal of dry needling is for the muscles to contract around the needles, allowing the tight fibers to relax. 
  1. Exercises — It’s important to not only stretch your neck muscles to alleviate the pain, but to strengthen them as well. A physical therapist can walk you through stretching exercises that will increase your neck muscles’ flexibility to improve range of motion. Strengthening exercises are also essential, because your neck muscles increase the stability of your neck and back for proper posture. They also keep your head stable during quick neck motions to avoid injury.

Back in Motion can provide physical therapy techniques to help neck pain that causes headaches 

Having pain and stiffness in your neck is one thing, but pairing it up with a headache just makes you feel like your whole head is out of commission. Physical therapy is one of the best treatment options for neck pain, especially neck pain that’s triggering headaches.

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

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