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What Can Make Neck Pain a Headache?

May 5, 2022
Neck Pain | Headache

Often people experiencing a headache are also experiencing neck pain/tightness at the same time. There are different ways that neck pain may either cause or contribute to a headache.

Cervicogenic Headache

Structures in the top three segments of the neck can refer pain to the head. This pain referral is generally felt in the back of the head, possibly extending to the side/s of the head. Sometimes it may be felt only in the side of the head, or occassionally even behind the eye/s. Where the neck pain/tightness is only on one side, the headache should be only on that same side.

Cervicogenic Headache

The structures which may be causing pain to be felt in this distribution include small muscles which connect the base of the head to the neck, and connective tissues within the joints between vertebrae.

This type of pain referral (called a “somatic” pain referral) is very common and normal. When sensation from different areas are received by similar locations in the brain, it can be difficult to interpret exactly where the sensation is coming from. This same phenomenon causes lower back pain to often be felt in the buttocks or groin, pain from the shoulder to be felt on the side of the arm etc.

Pain arising from the upper three segments of the neck can be caused or contributed to by postural issues (it’s very common in office workers!) and stress. You can also sprain joints in the upper neck traumatically, including in motor vehicle accidents, as well as from innocuous movements like drying your hair, getting out of a car etc.

Treating cervicogenic headaches involves assessing what structures appear to be causing pain, and assessing the reasons for this pain (postural vs acute sprain). Treatment may include joint mobilisations, soft tissue massage, postural retraining, muscle strengthening, stretches and/or taping.

Tension Headache


These headaches are generally felt in the front of the head and bilaterally. These headaches tend to be part of a series of vicious cycles, which may include neck/shoulder pain and/or muscle tension in the neck and/or upper trapezius. Other features involved in these vicious cycles may include stress, dehydration, poor posture and lack of sleep.

Treatment of these headaches may include hands on treatments such as soft tissue massage and joint mobilisations, as well as addressing other issues through diaphragmatic breathing exercises, discussion of sleep hygiene, activity planning, postural retraining etc.

If you’re struggling with headaches and think they might be caused or influenced by neck pain or muscle tightness, come see our physiotherapist in Aubin Grove to get treatment for headaches today!

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