For many chronic headache sufferers, migraines and neck pain are like birds of a feather, with some people experiencing neck stiffness and soreness before a migraine, and others struggling with neck pain and tension during or after an attack.
But is neck pain a result of migraines, or could neck problems actually be causing your headaches? In this article, we’ll explore the connection between neck pain and migraine headaches, the potential causes for each of these issues, when to seek advice from a medical professional, and ways to get relief.
Is a Stiff Neck a Symptom of Migraine?
Yes, a stiff neck is a very frequent symptom of migraines and other types of headaches. In fact, many people with chronic migraines experience persistent neck and shoulder pain before, during, and after migraine attacks. Moreover, 82% of female migraineurs report migraine and neck pain before their period.
Although the exact cause of migraines is unknown, they are thought to be the result of abnormal waves of activity within brain and nervous system cells, particularly the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve is the largest and most complex of the twelve cranial nerves, and its main function involves transmitting sensory (pain, touch, and temperature) information to the face and jaw area.
Evidence shows that the trigeminal nerve plays a major role in attacks for almost all migraine sufferers. When stimulated by abnormal brain activity, the trigeminal nerve releases pro-inflammatory substances that cause blood vessels to swell around the face and neck area, contributing to the classic symptoms of a migraine: throbbing headache; sensitivity to light, sound, and smells; and of course, neck pain.
Can Neck Problems Cause Migraines?
In the context of migraines, neck pain is more often a symptom rather than a trigger. However, certain types of headaches can be caused by neck problems like injury, chronic neck tension, and inflammation.
Cervicogenic headache is a pain that originates in the neck or cervical area but is perceived in the head. Unlike migraine, which is classified as a primary headache, cervicogenic headache is a secondary headache, meaning that it is a symptom of an underlying medical condition, such as:
- Degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease
- Whiplash, falls, or other neck injuries
- Fractured vertebrae
- Pinched nerve
- Muscle strain
- Cervical protraction from postural problems
Cervicogenic headaches are not migraines, but they can be just as recurrent and debilitating. Treatments include physical therapy, medications, lifestyle modifications to fix postural issues, and, in some cases, surgery or injections to relieve nerve compression or correct structural problems.
How to Tell If It’s a Migraine or Cervicogenic Headache
If you have recurrent neck pain and headaches, you may be wondering whether your symptoms are caused by migraines or neck issues. Cervicogenic headaches can mimic migraines, so it’s not always easy to tell them apart. However, there are some telltale signs that can indicate that your neck pain is caused by a migraine rather than a cervicogenic headache:
- Your headache and neck pain always start and end at the same time
- Your neck only hurts when a headache is about to start or after a headache
- The pain seems to originate from the head and radiate downwards, not the other way around
- You experience nausea and vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and blurred vision
- The pain does not worsen when you turn your head a certain way or when you press on your neck
When Should I Worry About Headaches and Neck Pain?
Neck pain from headaches is common and rarely a cause of concern. However, severe headaches with or without neck pain can be a sign of a serious condition, such as a stroke, a brain aneurysm, meningitis, or encephalitis (life threatening inflammatory diseases of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord).
Seek immediate medical help if you are experiencing the worst headache you’ve ever had, a severe or violent headache or neck pain that comes suddenly, or a headache accompanied by:
- Confusion or memory loss
- Trouble speaking
- Trouble walking
- Severe vomiting
- Sudden and severe neck pain or stiffness
- Trouble moving your arms or legs
Relieving a Migraine With Neck Pain
Once you’ve determined that your neck pain is caused by migraines and not by structural issues or cervical injuries, there are a few things you can do to relieve migraine-related neck pain. In most cases, since neck pain is a migraine symptom, treating the headache itself will greatly improve neck stiffness and soreness. However, if the pain becomes so severe during the attack that your neck continues aching for several hours or days after the migraines, the following natural treatment option may help you find some relief:
- Yoga for migraines
- Neck massage with lavender essential oils
- Alternate heat and cold
- Switch to a supportive pillow that alleviates pressure in the neck area
Migraines can cause a variety of symptoms, including neck pain. Sometimes, though, neck pain from an injury or a cervical issue can radiate upward and become a headache. This is called a cervicogenic headache. In both cases, it is possible to find relief and resume your daily activities with lifestyle modifications, home remedies, nutritional support, and medication. Be sure to reach out to a specialist if you are worried about your migraine symptoms, neck pain, or have other headache-related concerns.
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