It is not uncommon to have a headache and neck pain at the same time. If you’ve been experiencing neck pain along with your headaches, there’s a good chance the two are related.
Most headaches don’t actually stem from pain in your brain tissue or skull — these tissues don’t have nerve fibers that allow you to feel pain. Most headaches are related to input from nerve fibers in your scalp. These nerves are connected to other parts of your body, including your neck muscles. Sometimes when a problem in your neck stimulates a nerve that leads to your scalp, it can cause a headache.
Neck Pain and Headache: Likely Causes
Headaches that occur along with neck pain are often caused by:
- Stress. Tension headaches are often a result of stress, which can cause you to tense the muscles in your neck. A tension headache, also called a muscle-contraction headache, results from stiff, contracted muscles in and around the head. In addition to headache, neck pain and pressure are common symptoms of a tension headache.
- Posture. When the head and neck are in an awkward position for a prolonged period, like when you’re balancing the phone between your ear and shoulder, you can experience both head and neck pain. Sleeping with inadequate head and neck support, such as on an airplane or with an overly flattened pillow, can also lead to poor posture and associated head and neck pain.
- Poor lighting. When you are reading or doing other work without enough lighting, it can lead to eyestrain and stiffness in your scalp and forehead muscles, then to a tension headache and neck pain.
- Gum chewing. Believe it or not, vigorous gum chewing can strain the muscles in your head and neck and be another cause of tension headache and neck pain.
- Migraine headache. A migraine headache is an intense headache that’s thought to be related to the irritation of blood vessels in the brain. Sometimes, neck pain and stiffness are signs of an impending migraine headache.
- Cluster headache. Cluster headaches are severe headaches that typically strike on one side of the head and tend to happen in batches, or “clusters,” around the same time of day for weeks or even months. Cluster headaches are often accompanied by tenderness in the neck.
- Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. TMJ disorders are conditions affecting the jaw and neck that are often due to excessive jaw clenching or poor jaw alignment. Not surprisingly, TMJ can lead to both headaches and neck pain.
- Meningitis. Meningitis is a serious, potentially life-threatening, infection of the meninges, the delicate tissue that encases the brain. Symptoms of meningitis often include headache, neck stiffness, and fever.
- Post-traumatic headache. Trauma or an injury to your head and neck during a car accident, for instance, can lead to lasting headache, neck pain, and shoulder pain.
Neck Pain and Headache: When to See Your Doctor
If you have headaches associated with neck pain, it is important to talk with your doctor, especially if the pain is severe and you experience neck stiffness, fever, or sensitivity to light. While neck pain-associated headaches are usually the result of tension, they can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition.
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