Headaches are one of the most common health complaints and also one of the most complicated. There are literally hundreds of causes, many of which are not fully understood or understood at all. The cause of migraines, for example, is still unknown, which can be frustrating for those who suffer from their debilitating effects.
If you suffer from recurring headaches, seeing a physiotherapist probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. However, the cause of many headaches actually has little to do with the head itself and the problem may actually be found in your neck.
Why Your Headache Might Start in Your Neck
If your headaches coincide with neck stiffness, especially after prolonged periods without any movement such as sitting at a desk, then there’s a high chance that they’re caused by mechanical problems in the neck.
There are three structures in the neck that, if compromised, can cause headaches:
The most obvious cause of neck pain is injury to its muscles, whether from long term degeneration or sudden trauma. The problem is, this pain doesn’t always stay put. Instead, it may travel up into the head, through a mechanism known as pain referral, where pain is experienced in a different location from its source.
Pain caused by dysfunctional joints in the first three vertebrae coming down from the skull can also refer up into the head. Causes of joint pain include muscle weakness, arthritis, not moving enough or moving too much in a repetitive pattern.
If a nerve in your neck becomes compressed, often due to degeneration in the bone a herniated disc, you may feel pain radiate from the base of your skull all the way to your forehead. Unlike pain referral from your muscles and joints, you will also likely feel pain and weakness along your arms along with a tingling sensation.
If your headaches are caused by problems in the neck, there is, at least, some good news for you. Neck related headaches are very easy to diagnose and treatment is usually successful with a high chance to permanently resolve the pain.
All that’s normally required to diagnose whether pain in your head is being referred from the neck is to reproduce the pain by mobilising the neck or by pushing the afflicted muscle.
If we can’t reproduce the pain, then that means that something else is to blame, which in the case of headaches, can be anything from a huge list of factors including stress, hormonal changes, diet and eye problems – all of which can also exacerbate a headache originating in the neck. There’s also a rare but serious chance that the headache could be caused by a disease, known as a secondary headache, so it’s very important to get an accurate diagnosis if your pain is recurring.
Treating and Preventing Neck-Related Headaches
Most of the time, neck dysfunction is the result of bad habits, such as poor sitting posture, holding a phone with your shoulder or not moving your neck enough. We had one client who realised her neck problems were caused by her office door being on her left, so that every time someone walked in, she flicked her head in that direction. Over time, this led to an imbalance in the neck muscles, resulting in pain that referred into the head.
As well as correcting these bad habits, we also identify and work on any weaknesses and imbalances in the neck structures using deep tissue massage, manual therapy and exercise. Once the muscles in the neck are strengthened and balanced, symptoms should be relieved. Some relief can be achieved from the first session, though it typically takes about 6-12 weeks for the neck muscles to be completely strengthened, potentially relieving the pain for good.
For day to day prevention, maintain a healthy sitting posture (which I write about here) with a slight chin tuck, keeping your monitor at eye level if you’re working at a computer. Also remember to rotate your head through its full range of motion every 30 minutes to prevent stiffness and pursue activities that involve moving your head around. Simply walking to work instead of sitting on a train or bus gives you an opportunity to look around – don’t just stare at your phone!
If you’re experiencing headaches that you believe might be caused by neck problems, get in touch with us now by calling 020 7939 1628 or emailing email@example.com to book your appointment.
Kam Sowman BSc (Physio) MCSP MHCP
Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist
For any other questions regarding this topic please do not hesitate to contact me at West London Physio on 0207 937 1628 or email firstname.lastname@example.org