How To Stop Neck Pain Causing Headaches [A Complete Guide]

Neck Pain Causing Headaches

Have you ever been a victim of an irresistible pain in your head that you’ve always attributed as a migraine or a cluster headache? Well, interestingly, headaches are not always caused by physiological dysfunction in the head. You’d be surprised to know that many anomalies elsewhere in the body can indirectly affect the nerves in your head, thus resulting in a headache.

neck pain causing headaches

Today’s discussion relates to a very common symptom that accompanies a headache most of the time. Yes, I am referring to neck pain causing headaches. Have you ever wondered what causes unbearable neck pain causing headaches that often manifests as pain in the head as well?

 

Cervicogenic Headaches:

Any a headache that originates because of a primary issue in the neck joint is termed as a cervicogenic headache or a neck headache. It is a secondary form of a headache i.e. no pathology is identified in the head or brain. This means that treating the neck problem will automatically provide relief from a headache as well. Clinical research has proven that 22% of all headaches have their origin in the neck region and are hence cervicogenic in nature.

Understanding the Physiology of Pain:

neck pain causing headachesPain is basically a sensation that is felt when nerves carry pain signals to the brain. The brain interprets the signals and you feel pain in the area from which the nerves initially originated. Speaking of cervicogenic headaches, the nerves in the neck are referred to as cervical spinal nerves and are abbreviated as C1, C2, and C3.

However, the natural arrangement of cervical nerves is such that is crosses tract with the fifth cranial nerve, also referred to as the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve functions as a sensory pathway that carries sensation from the facial area to the brain. Because of this crossing over of nerves and sharing of the tracts, pain originating in the neck often travels through both the cervical and the trigeminal nerve hence it’s felt both in the head and neck.

 

What Causes a Cervicogenic headache?

The head and neck area encompass many complicated anatomical structures, all of them embedded together in a pool of neurovascular and musculoskeletal tissues. Any pathology that originates in the neck region can trigger pain signals which are manifested as a headache.

  1. Neck Joint Dysfunction:

The upper three cervical joints, when injured or affected by pathology, are the most common cause of cervicogenic headache. Anatomically speaking, the upper cervical segments are flexible and have prime importance in the posture and mobility of the neck. If they become stiff or attain an abnormal position, the supporting muscles won’t be able to function properly, resulting in abnormal neck posture. This can manifest as a neck pain causing headaches.

  1. Neck Muscles:

Muscle spasm in the neck or scapular region can again affect the mobility of the neck and aggravate neck pain and headache. Any pathology that affects the tension, strength, power or endurance of these muscles can result in a cervicogenic headache.

  1. Nerve Pathology:

The neck region houses abundant nerves that cross paths to make their way to the upper nervous system. These nerves when pressed, swollen or injured can result in irritation and abnormal neurodynamics.

  1. Abnormal Posture:

Many times, sustained abnormal posture can result in severe neck and head pain. Sleeping in a wrong position or excessive activity during swimming are common examples.

 

Making the Diagnosis:

Diagnosing the origin of any headache is no piece of cake. In fact, it’s one of the symptoms that cause the most controversies among neurologists and physicians. Headaches, irrespective of their cause, are always accompanied by a set of symptoms, ranging from nausea to light and noise sensitivity.

However, to make the diagnosis of a cervicogenic headache, it is essential that the patient complains of any one of the following symptoms:

  • Neck pain
  • Tenderness at the base of the skull
  • Exacerbation of symptoms of the movement of the neck
  • Neck stiffness
  • Loss or reduced neck mobility
  • Immediate relief by physiotherapy
  • Radiation of pain from the back of the head to the front
  • Relief of symptoms in a specific posture
  • Pain restricted to one side of the head only

Diagnostic Tools:

A proper medical history and physical examination are all you need to make the diagnosis in the majority of cases. However, in complicated cases, a number of diagnostic modalities are available to help clear confusion and solve the suspicion. Cervicogenic headaches can be diagnosed by cervical spine X-rays that target the upper three spinal segments and detect bony or soft tissue abnormality in the neck region.

A CT scan or MRI may prove to be helpful in cases that cannot be diagnosed by conventional methods. With increasing facilities and medical advancements, many diagnostic modalities these days offer the added benefit of therapeutic effectiveness. The nerve block is one such technique that helps define the origin of a headache and provide relief at the same time.

 

Treatment for Neck Pain Causing Headaches:

The treatment offered to the patient depends highly on the diagnosis and medical history of the patient. However, the following measures can be taken in order to relieve neck pain that is accompanied by an excruciating headache.

  1. Painkillers:

Most commonly used painkillers belong to the class of drugs called NSAIDs. These include Diclofenac, ibuprofen, Paracetamol, Mefanamic Acid and many more. In resistant cases, patients may need to switch to more potent agents like opiates which include morphine and methadone, tricyclic antidepressants which include triptans and anti-seizure medications like gabapentin.

  1. Heat Therapy:

Applying heat in form of a hot water bottle to the painful area can help relieve muscle spasm or fatigued muscles.

  1. Rest:

An injured tissue must be given a chance to heal on its own. Avoiding strenuous activity for a couple of days is all that’s required to reverse the pain in many cases.

  1. Ice Therapy:

Pain that is caused by inflammation can be relieved by application of ice packs. This approach is proven to reduce inflammation and provide comfort.

  1. Nerve Blocks:

Severe cases that are resistant to oral and intravenous medications can benefit from occipital nerve block. This technique involves administration of agents in the nerve root that blocks the passage of pain signals in the nerve and thus diminishes a headache and neck pain.

  1. Joint Blocks:

The joint block is another effective yet last resort to cure excruciating neck pain. It involves blocking the atlantoaxial joint by administering a chemical agent between C1 and C2 spinal segment. Facet joints can also be blocked when the same agent is instilled between C2 and C3. This regime not only cures the neck pain but also provides relief from a headache.

 

The Role of Physiotherapy:

neck pain causing headache

Neck pain casing headache responds almost immediately to physiotherapy. Consulting a specialized physiotherapist should always be your first step in cases of undiagnosed, excruciating headaches that are accompanied by neck pain. They are expert in diagnosing neck headache and will implement necessary measures to relief your pain. Physiotherapy targets multiple issues at a time, thus correcting all the underlying pathologies.

  1. Joint manipulation techniques and gentle gliding procedures help loosen stiff neck joints that are the cause of pain. Mobilization of the neck is the ultimate goal.
  2. Muscle strengthening exercises help limit movement at dynamically unstable or hyper-mobile joints.
  3. Massage, acupuncture, stretching and other relaxation techniques are implemented to combat sore and fatigued neck muscles.
  4. A posture brace is usually recommended for individuals who need posture correction to relief cervicogenic headache.
  5. Complete guidance and counseling are provided to avoid such complaints in the future.
The effects of physiotherapy are mostly immediate and exceptional. It’s an instant relief to get rid of this problem within two to three sessions of physiotherapy. Depending on the severity, most patients would be able to get rid of this menace for a lifetime while a minority may return with similar complains in the future.
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Home Remedies for Relieving Neck Pain Causing Headaches:

If you’re inclined towards herbal remedies that can be implemented at home, the following can help you a great deal.

  1. Ginger Tea:

Boil ginger root in a glass of water or mix ginger and lemon juice in equal ratio to enjoy relief from an excessive headache and neck pain.

  1. Peppermint oil:

This essential oil with its strong scent helps increase blood flow and promotes healing. Either massage a few drops on your temples or infuse it in a cup of water to enjoy warm peppermint tea.

  1. Cinnamon:

Ground cinnamon is an effective way to relieve a neck pain causing headaches. Make a thick paste of cinnamon and water and apply to the painful area for thirty minutes. Wash it with lukewarm water later on.

  1. Basil:

Basil is a natural analgesic and muscle relaxant. You may chew some basil leaves in an event of a headache or add them in boiling water to prepare basil tea.

 

Looking for Red Flag Symptoms:

Many times, neck pain and headache are part of a bigger spectrum of disease and should not be taken lightly for the consequences can be devastating. It’s imperative that you check for red flag symptoms that alert you to some severe ongoing pathology. These symptoms might include fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weight loss, coordination issues, untimely loss of consciousness and mental state changes.

Such symptoms demand immediate medical referral because many serious diseases like meningitis, osteomyelitis, brain infection, brain tumor or cervical dystonia can present in a similar manner.

 

Conclusion:

Neck pain causing headaches is not a serious issue if it’s isolated and not associated with other underlying pathologies. A visit to a neurologist or physiotherapist can solve your problem in ninety percent of the cases. However, all the treatment regimes prescribed by the doctor should be followed religiously to attain optimum results.

 

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