What Causes a Headache With Neck Pain?

Headaches with neck pain can make you feel miserable. But not all of them are the same. Sometimes neck problems are what inspire a throbbing head, or it could be that the headache has another cause that leads to neck issues.

Pain signals can be sent by:

  • The blood vessels in your head and neck
  • Tissues around your brain
  • Nerves that start in the brain
  • Other body parts like the muscles and joints of the neck, scalp, sinuses, and teeth.

Stress, poor posture, caffeine withdrawal, and hangovers all can be causes. Pain relievers and stretches may be all it takes to feel better. In some cases, though, it’s worth seeing your doctor to figure out what’s causing your pain.

Stress

If you’re tense, muscles in your neck, scalp, shoulders, and jaw can tighten up. That can lead to a tension headache. Depression or anxiety can also cause the same symptoms.

Try to eat well and get enough rest. Relaxation strategies like yoga can help, too. If stress causes you to grind your teeth at night, your dentist might recommend a bite guard. You might consider seeing a mental health professional to find out what’s causing your feelings.

To ease your pain on your own, you can try:

  • Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Heating pads
  • Warm showers
  • Short naps
  • Snacks
  • Mild stretches

There are relaxation techniques that can also help, like:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation, where you tense and then fully relax muscle groups in a specific order
  • Guided imagery, a way to create calm images in your mind
  • Breathing exercises

Check in with your doctor if your tension headaches make you take pain meds more than twice a week or if they disrupt your daily life. Also, make an appointment if the pattern or symptoms of your headaches change.

Migraine

Migraine headaches are different from tension headaches. If you have a migraine, the pain is throbbing and can be moderate to severe. Symptoms may also include:

  • Aura, a temporary vision disturbance where you see lights or lose the ability to see
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Nausea
  • Pain on one side of the head or neck

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There are many potential migraine triggers, such as:

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Not enough sleep
  • Too little food
  • Hormonal changes
  • Genetics

Over-the-counter pain relievers may ease your symptoms if you take a full dose early on after the migraine starts. If these don’t work, check with your doctor, who might prescribe triptans for pain relief or preventative medicine, like:

You might explore complementary treatments like acupuncture, massage, tai chi, and biofeedback, though it’s unclear how well these work. Dietary supplements are also a way to avoid migraines. Other options that may work include:

Be careful, though. These may not be safe for women who are pregnant or nursing, children, and people taking other medications. Ask your doctor before you take any of these. Also, be sure to tell them about any supplements, drugs, or alternative tools you are using.

Hangovers

Too much alcohol can result in a bad night’s sleep. Either you toss and turn, or you fall into an unusually heavy sleep where your neck is in an uncomfortable position. It’s because alcohol causes the blood vessels in your brain to expand and irritate nearby tissues. All this can cause:

  • Throbbing pain
  • Nausea
  • Pain on both sides of the head

Remedies are the same as those for stress headaches in general, with a few added ideas: hydrate (with water or broth) and enjoy something with fructose (like honey or tomato juice).

Poor Posture

This strains your muscles and tendons. That can lead to a headache with neck pain. Things that could help include:

  • A body-friendly (ergonomic) chair and workspace
  • A visit to a chiropractor or other health professional
  • Biofeedback
  • Massage therapy

Relaxation techniques like breathing exercises can also help.

Caffeine Withdrawal

Caffeine withdrawal can cause head and neck pain if you cut out beverages like coffee and tea too quickly. This can make your blood vessels dilate, or expand. That causes the head pain. It’s better to ease off your caffeine step-by-step rather than all at once.

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When to See a Doctor

In some cases, the things that lead to your headache with neck pain need medical attention. Call your doctor if the pain:

  • Is severe
  • Gets worse with time
  • Involves personality or mood changes
  • Is paired with a fever
  • Comes with confusion or memory problems
  • Also makes you feel sluggish
  • Involves jaw pain, vision problems, and a sore scalp
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 20, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Men’s Healthwatch: “Headache: When to worry, what to do.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Headaches: In Depth.”

Mayo Clinic: “Tension Headache.”

National Headache Foundation: “Physical Therapy for Headache.”

Berkshire Healthcare: “Cervicogenic Headaches.”

National Headache Foundation: “The Complete Headache Chart.”

National Health Service: “Headaches.”

Michigan Medicine: “Progressive Muscle Relaxation.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Guided Imagery.”

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