Headache with neck pain is far worse than having a headache alone. Here are a few tips to help you relieve tension headache and neck pain without medication.
- Apply firm pressure. Firm compression on the temples, forehead, and/or back of the neck with your fingertips may provide relief from pain caused by tension headaches.1
- Use an ice pack. Cold therapy decreases blood flow and reduces muscle spasms and inflammation, relieving pain. A cold pack placed on the forehead or temples may be useful when treating some tension headaches.2
- 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.
- Maintain good posture. Maintaining good posture can help keep your neck, shoulder, and back muscles healthy and less fatigued. Maintaining good posture may not only help relieve your neck pain but may also prevent neck and back pain from occurring. Sitting tall with shoulders back and without protruding the head forward is a good way to keep the head, shoulders, and back in proper alignment.
- Sleep, but don’t oversleep. When you have tension headaches, it is important that you get good sleep. Sleep deprivation may either induce tension headaches or make an existing headache chronic in some people.3 Some studies also show that sleeping longer than usual may cause tension headaches to occur or become worse.4-5
- Use the right pillow. A suitable pillow allows for a good sleep position and may help reduce neck pain and headaches. Choosing the right pillow with the appropriate height, comfort, and support for you depends on your head-neck alignment.6 In general, polyester and latex pillows are known to provide quality, undisturbed sleep.7
- Relax to relieve pain. You can relieve tension headache triggers such as anxiety and stress by meditating or doing simple breathing exercises. These techniques help release feel-good hormones (endorphins) and can help you feel relaxed and improve concentration.
- Visit a physical therapist. A physical therapist can help formulate a treatment plan by incorporating physical therapy techniques, such as manual therapy and/or exercise.8 Physical therapy is also useful in strengthening the neck and back muscles.
- 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.9
- Try traditional Chinese medicine. Acupuncture and acupressure, both focus on stimulation of certain acupoints in the body. Stimulation of these acupoints may help relieve trigger point pain, as well as regulate the function of organs and maintain a state of stability and balance in the body.10
When you have headache with neck pain, it is important to give yourself a break and let others know that you need time to rest and recover from your condition.
Is it a migraine?
In addition to tension headaches, migraines may also cause neck pain.10-11 If you suspect you have a migraine, you can also try avoiding migraine triggers. Migraine triggers can be found in foods and food additives, such as chocolates, monosodium glutamate, nitrites, nitrates, caffeine, and alcohol.13 Migraines may also be triggered by certain types of light, smell, and/or sounds.
When to call a doctor
Both tension headaches and migraines can be painful and disabling in severe or chronic forms. It is advisable to consult with your doctor if you have headache with neck pain that does not subside, occurs frequently, or gets worse over time. A doctor can help formulate a treatment plan that may involve medications.
Headaches with associated neck stiffness and tingling and/or numbness in the neck, shoulder, and/or arms could indicate a serious injury or medical condition, such as meningitis, and should be evaluated by a doctor.
- 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.
- 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.
- Rains JC, Davis RE, Smitherman TA. Tension-type headache and sleep. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2015;15(2):520.