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. The cervical spine is the uppermost portion of the spine in the neck. It is comprised of seven bones (vertebrae), C1 through C7, all padded with intervertebral discs. 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.
Use good posture!
- Avoid holding your neck still or keeping it in one position. Even a “good position” will cause muscle fatigue if maintained for too long. Set a timer to remind you to take a break.
- Use good posture during all activities. Be ‘tall’ as you sit, stand or walk.
- Have a good set-up for your desk or computer at work and at home. The top of your head should be level with the top of your screen.
- Be aware of your neck position when using a laptop or texting on a cell phone.
- Avoid stress on your neck when reaching or lifting by keeping objects close to your body. If sitting, place objects you need within easy reach.
- Avoid cradling the phone between your ear and shoulder.
- Sleep on your side or back with your neck and head supported by pillows.
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 options may help you find comfort:
- Yoga for migraines
- Neck massage with lavender and other essential oils
- Essential oil roller-stick on neck muscles and upper shoulders
- Alternate heat and cold
- Nutritional supplements (fast-acting)
- 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 comfort and resume your daily activities with lifestyle modifications, home remedies, nutritional support, to maintain a healthy inflammatory response, 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.
The MigreLief collection of supplements was created by Akeso Health Sciences to help migraine sufferers of all ages. AKESO formulates world class dietary supplements that provide nutritional support for the most common health issues that concern people most, such as migraines, headaches, joint health, stress & anxiety, memory, sleeplessness, ADHD, and more. Changing lives is the reasons we wake up every day passionate about the special products we provide to our customers. Helping you to get well and stay well is our bottom line.
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