Neck strain, headaches and other factors to consider

by | Mar 4, 2024 | Healthy posture & movement

Young african american woman with headache on gray background.

Headaches, a common issue, often stem from multiple factors like hormone imbalances, food intolerances, and stress. Certain types, such as ‘migraines’ or ‘cluster headaches’, are associated with vascular events (reduced blood flow) and come with symptoms like aura, light sensitivity, and nausea. Notably, a significant portion of headaches can be attributed to ‘referred pain’ from the neck, a topic we’ll be exploring in this blog.

How the neck can be a cause of headaches:

The intricate nerve connections in your neck, head, and face create a complex network. The nerves responsible for sensation in the top two vertebrae of your spine and certain neck and shoulder muscles also extend to parts of your face and scalp. When signals from the muscles or joints in the upper cervical spine reach the brain, they can be misconstrued as pain, leading to what is known as a ‘cervicogenic headache’. Luckily physiotherapy have been shown to be extremely effective in managing these types of headaches.

Causes of problems in the upper neck

  • Your neck is the top-most part of your spine. Your body needs to balance your head in the perfect horizontal position for your eyes. This means that any asymmetry below your neck will be corrected in your neck, which can cause dysfunctional movement or overload in the joints and muscles in your neck.
  • You may develop posture and movement habits that overtime can cause cervicogenic headaches. This can be as simple sitting with your ribcage dropped to one side or slouched forward. It could also be the result of walking with a limp or compensating for a shoulder problem by moving your shoulder blade in a different pattern. Stress and fatigue due to long working hours can also cause poor posture habits.
  • Other: Breathing through your mouth (rather than your nose), TM joint dysfunction (clicking and / or locking in your jaw or only chewing with one side of your mouth), and weakness around your pelvis (which changes back posture and the way you hold your head up) can also lead to imbalance in the upper cervical spine.

Physiotherapy management 

If you suspect you might be suffering from cervicogenic headaches and experience neck tension leading to headaches, it’s crucial to identify the triggers. Note activities during headache onset and the frequency of pain relief medication. This information will be very helpful to your physiotherapist in working out what is driving your headaches and will help you to work together with them to address the cause rather than simply treating the symptoms. 

Physiotherapy employs a combination of joint mobilization, soft tissue release, neural mobilization, targeted exercises, movement re-education and postural correction. By addressing both the current headache and potential triggers for recurrent headaches, physiotherapy plays a vital role in preventing future discomfort.

Other factors to consider 

  • Ear, nose and throat: Sometimes ear problems can also be associated with your neck. Some of the other symptoms can include blocked ears, ringing in the ears, and ear pain. If you have symptoms like this, it is best to have them checked by a doctor before trying physiotherapy.
  • Vision: Poor vision or eye strain can contribute to neck tension as it often leads to strained posture and prolonged muscle contraction. – Make sure you test your eye annually.
  • Blood pressure: Changes in blood pressure can contribute to headaches by affecting blood vessel function and altering the brain’s blood supply, leading to the activation of pain receptors.
  • If you find you must take a specific brand of tablet to treat your headache and nothing else works for you, you could be experiencing withdrawal from an ingredient in that medication. These headaches are sometimes called ‘medication overuse headaches’ or ‘rebound headaches’. This can happen when your body gets used to a regular dose of a certain medication, especially when the medication contains more than one drug and codeine or caffeine. The regular use of the same medication increases the intensity or frequency of your headaches, driving a cycle of pain and medication use. Examples of combination drugs include Grandpa or Compral. These drugs can be effective if used correctly for short periods of time. Always read the package insert before using a drug and do not use it for longer than the period recommended without consulting a suitably qualified medical professional such as your GP or a pharmacist.


In conclusion, recognizing the link between neck strain and headaches is vital. Through targeted physiotherapy techniques and a holistic approach to addressing potential triggers, individuals can effectively manage and prevent cervicogenic headaches.

Take proactive steps towards lasting relief and improved well-being by booking a session at our practice today.

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