Author: Jenna Fletcher
People may occasionally experience neck pain with a headache. Although people can usually manage symptoms at home, in some cases, they may need to contact a doctor.
A variety of conditions, such as infections, stress, and illness, can cause neck pain and a headache.
People sometimes worry that a headache means they have cancer or another serious medical issue. Most headaches, though, are harmless and go away on their own.
Monitoring for other symptoms, such as fever, and tracking whether or not symptoms get worse can tell a person if they should seek medical attention.
Read more to learn about what causes neck pain and headache, how to treat the symptoms, and when to contact a doctor.
There are many different types of headaches. The most common are migraine, cluster, and tension.
A tension headache gradually gets worse with time, and neck pain can accompany it. Fatigue, stress, and muscle strain are often underlying causes of these headaches.
These headaches often lead to a dull, throbbing pain on both sides of the head. The pain might come and go.
According to the American Migraine Association, a specific source of pain in the head or neck causes a cervicogenic headache. It leads to a dull, aching pain on one side of the head.
In addition to pain, a person may experience:
- a limited range of motion of their neck
- a headache that worsens as a result of specific movements
- increased headache pain due to pressure on the neck
- pain that typically occurs on one side of the head
- pain that starts in the back of the head or neck and travels behind the eyes
A cluster headache is a sudden, intense headache that can be debilitating. It usually begins near the eyes or temples and affects just one side of the head.
This headache can make a person have red eyes, a runny nose, and congestion.
Cluster headaches typically last less than 3 hours. They often begin with a prodromal phase, which is when a person may have changes in mood, personality, or sensations. Some people may also have neck stiffness.
A COVID-19 infection can cause headaches in some people. According to a 2020 study 11–34% of people receiving hospital treatment for COVID-19 reported experiencing a headache. People with a COVID-19 headache may also have a stiff neck as well as widespread muscle pain, aches, and stiffness.
A COVID-19 headache can happen for several reasons, including:
- muscle stiffness, especially in the neck and back
- a sinus headache from congestion
- damage to blood vessels
- changes in blood pressure
The virus can also lead to meningitis, which causes a stiff neck, headache, light sensitivity, and sometimes changes in thinking or personality.
Migraine is a type of neurological headache that can cause severe pain.
A 2020 study suggest that neck pain may be the most common migraine symptom, beginning at the same time as the headache.
The study, which included 50 participants, found that neck pain occurred alongside a migraine headache in about 90% of people. The remaining 10% experienced neck pain at other points during their migraine headache.
Meningitis is swelling of the meninges, which are membranes that line the skull and spinal column. It happens when an infection attacks the meninges. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites can all cause meningitis.
People with meningitis often have a very bad headache and a stiff neck that makes it difficult to move the head. It can also cause other symptoms, including:
- loss of consciousness
- nausea and vomiting
- sensitivity to light
The treatment for a headache and neck pain depends on the type of headache a person has. The following are common treatments for different types of headaches.
Tension headaches often cause mild to moderate pain. In some instances, over-the-counter (OTC) medication, massage, or rest will relieve pain. If the pain is persistent or occurs frequently, a person may need additional treatment options.
Some prevention strategies include:
- eating regular meals
- managing stress
- getting regular rest
- exercising each day for at least 30 minutes
- avoiding triggers such as stress or lack of sleep
- drinking enough water
- keeping a headache log to identify triggers
- stretching to reduce neck and upper body tension
Cervicogenic headaches are the result of an underlying condition in the neck, so treatments focus on the neck. People experiencing these headaches should contact a doctor.
Typical treatments for cervicogenic headaches can vary but may include:
- using nerve blocks
- taking pain medication
- having physical therapy
Migraine treatments often involve improving a person’s symptoms and preventing future migraine.
Some treatment options include:
- using medications, such as pain relievers, triptan, or ergotamine drugs
- resting in a dark, quiet room
- drinking plenty of fluids
- applying a cool, damp cloth or ice pack on the forehead
- undergoing hormone therapy
- recording triggers and trying to avoid them
- managing stress
Many people do not need to contact a doctor for a headache and neck pain. Usually, taking OTC medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or applying heat packs can adequately manage pain.
A person should contact a doctor if:
- the headache does not go away or gets worse
- OTC medications do not stop the pain
- the headache interferes with daily activities
- sexual activity, coughing, sneezing, exercise, or bending over trigger the headache
- they develop nausea or dizziness
A person should seek emergency medical treatment if they experience:
- vomiting that will not stop
- loss of vision
- pain lasting more than 72 hours
- the presence of unusual symptoms
- an intense “thunderclap” sensation in their head
- weakness or numbness of the face or arms
- slurred speech
- stiff neck and fever
Neck pain and headaches are often connected. Several types of headaches, including tension and migraine headaches, may correlate with neck and other pain.
People should contact a doctor if they are not sure what is causing their headache and neck pain, treatments are not working, or they experience other worrying symptoms.