Headache with neck pain can be a double whammy that makes it difficult to move the head and/or concentrate. While headaches can cause the muscles in your neck to become stiff and painful, a problem in your neck, such as irritated nerves, can also cause headaches. Common conditions where you may experience headache and neck pain together are:
Here are 11 tips to help relieve headache and neck pain without medication. Just remember to stop a treatment if it makes your pain worse.
- Apply firm pressure. Applying compression on the temples, forehead, and/or back of the neck provide may provide relief from pain caused by tension headaches or migraines. 1 Zanchin G, Maggioni F, Granella F, Rossi P, Falco L, Manzoni GC. Self-administered pain-relieving manoeuvres in primary headaches. Cephalalgia. 2001;21(7):718-26. This pressure may be applied with your fingertips, hands, or by wrapping a handkerchief around your head.
- Try heat therapy. In some people, headaches may be caused by constriction of blood vessels, and can be relieved by placing a heat pack on the back of the neck. Taking a hot shower may also help in relieving pain while also providing a relaxed feeling. When applying heat therapy, limit applications to 15 minutes with at least 2 hours of rest in between to prevent skin damage.
- Use an ice pack. Cold therapy decreases blood flow and reduces muscle spasms and inflammation, relieving pain. A cold pack placed on the forehead, temple, or neck may be useful when treating neck pain and headache. 2 Meng WJ, Jo SY, Lee SH, Kim NH. Modification of therapeutic temperature range in cryotherapy could improve clinical efficacy in tension type headache. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2018;31(3):577-581. People who have migraines may find ice packs bring more relief than hot packs. 1 Zanchin G, Maggioni F, Granella F, Rossi P, Falco L, Manzoni GC. Self-administered pain-relieving manoeuvres in primary headaches. Cephalalgia. 2001;21(7):718-26. When applying cold therapy, limit applications to 15 minutes with at least 2 hours of rest in between applications to prevent skin damage.
- Maintain good posture. Spending hours a day slouched at a desk or over a computer with forward head posture puts extra stress on the neck’s muscles and joints. This poor posture can eventually lead to neck pain and/or trigger headaches. 3 Lee, J-H. Effects of forward head posture on static and dynamic balance control. 2016; 28(1):274-77. Instead, keep the head in neutral position with the ears directly over the shoulders and hips, which more naturally balances the head on the cervical spine. In addition to maintaining good posture, try to take breaks from sitting and get regular exercise as tolerated.
- Sleep, but don’t oversleep. A good sleep routine is important for overall good health. A lack of sleep can induce headaches or make an existing headache chronic in some people. 4 Rains JC, Davis RE, Smitherman TA. Tension-type headache and sleep. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2015;15(2):520. , 5 Vgontzas A, Pavlovic JM. Sleep disorders and migraine: review of literature and potential pathophysiology mechanisms. Headache. 2019; 58(7):1030-9. Some studies also show that sleeping longer than usual may cause tension headaches to occur or become worse. 6 Kikuchi H, Yoshiuchi K, Yamamoto Y, et al. Does sleep aggravate tension-type headache? An investigation using computerized ecological momentary assessment and actigraphy. Biopsychosoc Med 2011; 5: 10. , 7 Iliopoulos P, Damigos D, Kerezoudi E, et al. Trigger factors in primary headaches subtypes: a cross-sectional study from a tertiary centre in Greece. BMC Res Notes. 2015;8:393
- Find the right pillow. A suitable pillow supports the natural curve of your neck and may help reduce neck pain and headaches. While pillows can vary greatly by height, material, shape, and firmness, no one pillow is considered best for everyone. Choosing the right pillow for you depends on your personal preferences and head-neck alignment. 8 Liselott Persson. Neck pain and pillows – A blinded study of the effect of pillows on non-specific neck pain, headache and sleep, Advances in Physiotherapy. 2006; 8:3, 122-127, DOI: 10.1080/14038190600780239 Try different pillows to see which one helps your neck to feel the best in the morning.
- Keep a daily journal. Research suggests that writing out your emotions in a private journal may help relieve stress. 9 Langens TA, Schuler J. Effects of written emotional expression: the role of positive expectancies. Health Psychol. 2007; 26(2): 174-82. Over time, keeping a journal may also help you to identify activities or foods that are triggering neck pain and/or headaches. For example, migraine triggers can be found in foods and food additives, such as chocolates, monosodium glutamate, nitrites, nitrates, caffeine, and alcohol. 10 Sun-edelstein C, Mauskop A. Foods and supplements in the management of migraine headaches. Clin J Pain. 2009;25(5):446-52. Migraines may also be triggered by certain types of light, smell, and/or sounds.
- Visit a physical therapist. A physical therapist can help formulate a treatment plan by incorporating physical therapy techniques, such as manual therapy, stretching, and/or exercise. Physical therapy may help reduce headaches and neck pain. 11 Espi-Lopez GV, Arnal-Gomez A, Arbos-Berenguer T, Gonzalez AAL, Vicente-Her , 12 Page P. Cervicogenic headaches: an evidence-led approach to clinical management. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011; 6(3):254-66. , 13 Nazari G, Bobos P, Billis E, Macdermid JC. Cervical flexor muscle training reduces pain, anxiety, and depression levels in patients with chronic neck pain by a clinically important amount: A prospective cohort study. Physiother Res Int. 2018. It is also useful in strengthening the neck and back muscles for better posture and function.
- Get a massage. A massage therapist may help relieve pain in trigger points (tender nodules in the neck and scalp muscles) through different massage techniques. 14 Moraska AF, Stenerson L, Butryn N, Krutsch JP, Schmiege SJ, Mann JD. Myofascial trigger point-focused head and neck massage for recurrent tension-type headache: a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Clin J Pain. 2015;31(2):159-68.
- Try dry needling. A medical professional trained in dry needling may place thin, sterile needles into painful trigger points located in your neck and/or head. The goal of dry needling is to release tension in irritable muscles and their connective tissues, which might have been contributing to the headaches and/or neck pain. Some evidence suggests that dry needling may help bring relief from chronic tension-type headaches. 15 Gildir S, Tuzun EH, Eroglu G, Eker L. A randomized trial of trigger point dry needling versus sham needling for chronic tension-type headache. Medicine (Baltimor). 2019 Feb;98(8):e14520.
- Consider acupuncture. According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, an energy imbalance or stagnation within the body may contribute to neck pain and headaches. Acupuncture is one method for trying to get this energy (called “qi”) to start flowing again. A licensed acupuncturist places ultra-thin needles at specific acupoints on the body, depending on the symptoms being experienced. While science has yet to prove that qi or acupoints exist, 16 Li F, He T, Xu Q, et al. What is the Acupoint? A preliminary review of Acupoints. Pain Med. 2015;16(10):1905-15 many people have reported experiencing at least temporary pain relief from acupuncture. 17 Kelly RB, Willis J. Acupuncture for pain. Am Fam Physician. 2019;100(2):89-96.
Try a combination of these tips to see what works best for your headache and neck pain. If your headache and/or neck pain occurs frequently or worsens over time, consult a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. A doctor can help formulate a treatment plan, which may also include medications.
It is important to seek immediate medical attention for any stiff neck (nuchal rigidity) that presents with a severe headache and/or fever. These symptoms could indicate meningitis, which is a medical emergency.