Neck pain & headaches

Neck pain may also give rise to headaches

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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An introduction to neck pain and headaches

Sometimes neck pain and headaches come hand in hand. It can be an unpleasant experience, and often it is difficult to work out why you are experiencing the pain. Indeed, there are many causes of pain in these areas, and often it is important to look at your symptoms, history and what triggers your neck pain and headaches.

What causes neck pain and headaches?

The most understandable reason for someone experiencing pain is if they receive a direct impact to their head or neck. This could happen if you trip and fall, suffer a whiplash injury, twisting your neck in an awkward direction or hitting your head on the ground. However, often the cause is not so obvious.

Other causes may include:

  • Soft tissue damage – tendons and ligaments are examples of soft tissue which can be easily damaged. Overstretching these tissues is easily done whilst sleeping in an awkward position or sitting with bad posture in front of a computer screen for too long. This can give rise to muscular neck strain and result in stiffness and headaches
  • Migraine – these are severe headaches which come in periodic waves or attacks. There is a range of symptoms associated with migraines, one of the most common being headaches together with neck pain. Neck pain is far more common than aura or nausea, usually said to be common symptoms of headaches
  • Tension headache – these are the most common type of headache particularly among teenagers and adults. They occur when the muscles in the neck and head become tense causing them to contract. It is often triggered by stress, although sitting with your head in the same position for a long time, or too much caffeine can also trigger this type of headache
  • Cervicogenic headache – while you may experience pain in your head or neck, the root of the problem may lie in your shoulders or upper back. This is a problem which arises from the vertebral bones of your neck (known as the upper cervical vertebrae) which explains the term. Often the cause is a type of arthritis or rheumatism where the cartilage between the bones begins to wear away.
  • Trapped nerve –the nerves leaving your vertebral column travel through narrow spaces and are protected by a small amount of soft tissue. However, sometimes the space they pass through becomes smaller, compressing the nerve. This can lead to pain in the head and neck, and in some cases, a tingling sensation down the arms and into the hands or fingers
  • Whiplash – this is an injury where your head and neck are flung forwards and then backwards, often straining the muscles or damaging the soft tissue. This is a common occurrence in car accidents, particularly when hit from behind.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms you experience will depend on the cause of your neck pain and headache:

  • People suffering from a tension headache will feel tightness or a widespread area of throbbing pain, while those who have a trapped nerve may experience a sharp stabbing pain in a specific area
  • If you are experiencing other symptoms as well as neck pain and headaches, then this could give you insight into the cause of your problem. Migraines are often triggered by certain foods such as red wine or chocolate, while tension headaches tend to be a by-product of stress. Finding a correlation between certain circumstances and your symptoms may give you an indication as to the cause
  • If your neck pain and headache disappears after a few days, the chances are fairly high that you were suffering from some soft tissue damage or neck strain. This is also likely if you are reluctant to turn your head in a certain direction because it increases the level of pain.
  • It is important to distinguish between difficulty turning your head because of pain and an inability to move your head because of weakness, as this is more likely to be an indication of a trapped nerve.

What treatment is there?

The most appropriate treatment will depend on what is causing your neck pain and headaches. For this reason, it is often necessary to speak to a medical professional to have your condition diagnosed and an effective treatment plan to be established.

If you know or suspect that your neck pain and headaches are caused by soft tissue damage or muscle strain, then this can be treated at home by gently easing or stretching your muscles by keeping your head and neck moving. Anti-inflammatories and painkillers will help ease any muscular pain. Extracts of the Arnica herb are often used in these circumstances, as it has anti-inflammatory and pain-killing properties. It can be found in licensed herbal products such as Atrogel Arnica gel.

For severe or lasting pain, particularly if your mobility or sense of touch is affected, it is important to seek medical advice. If you are having difficulty co-ordinating, balancing, remembering or speaking, then immediate medical attention is necessary.

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Did you know?

Your head exerts up to 12lbs on the spine and when you lower your head (to read a text or check your facebook) this can increase to as much as 60lbs - the same weight as 5 bowling balls!

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