Pinched Nerve in Neck Headache

How to tell if a pinched nerve in your neck is causing your headache

Do you have consistent headaches in addition to neck pain? You may be experiencing symptoms of a pinched nerve. A pinched nerve in your neck can cause several different types of headaches, depending on where the nerve is pinched and how long the nerve has been compressed. Often, symptoms are triggered by things like a muscle spasm, sleeping in the wrong position, or sitting in an uncomfortable position. 

If you have headaches related to a pinched nerve, you may experience the following symptoms: 

  • Muscle spasms.
  • Pain when moving the neck.
  • Same-side shoulder and arm pain, tingling, or numbness.
  • Diminished strength, sensation or coordination.

You can try several treatment methods to relieve pressure from your pinched nerve and ease your constant headaches. Physical therapy techniques like myofascial trigger point therapy can be an effective option to releasing tension in the neck and head. 

How does a pinched nerve headache differ from a migraine?

About 2 out of every 1,000 people are diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy, or the medical term for a pinched neck. You’re most likely to develop it during your middle-aged years.

Your nerves in your neck are intricately connected to nerves that travel along your cervical spine and the rest of your head. As a result, when a major nerve in your neck is compressed, you can feel pain that radiates to your temples, forming a headache. When the upper nerves in the neck are involved, you may get what’s called a cervicogenic headache.

While headaches from pinched nerves can mimic a migraine, the source of pain is actually in your neck. If you have a pinched nerve, turning your neck, nodding or holding it in one position for a long time (such as sitting at a computer) can trigger this type of headache. These headaches aren’t usually accompanied by nausea or vomiting, as migraines often are. In short, migraines start and end in the brain, while pinched-nerve-related headaches are referred pain from neck tissue.

Pinched-nerve-related headaches tend to worsen when you’re sitting or lying down, as the tissue surrounding your pinched nerve becomes even more compressed. As a result, you may feel better when moving. 

A medical professional, such as a physical therapist, may be able to tell if you have a pinched nerve by examining your neck. Yet you may also need an X-ray or CT scan, too. Fortunately, there are tips a physical therapist can recommend if you have a pinched nerve in your neck that’s triggering headaches.

3 tips your physical therapist may suggest for pinched-nerve-related headaches

While pinched-nerve-related headaches can be painful and frustrating, they typically go away with noninvasive treatment. In fact, up to 90% of patients with cervical radiculopathy experience improvement with therapeutic treatment, including physical therapy.

A physical therapist can work with you to release tension around the nerve in your neck and strengthen the tissue surrounding your nerve to prevent further injury. However, if you can’t see a physical therapist right away, there are some steps you can take at home to help relieve your symptoms, including the following:

  • Apply heat and cold to your neck.
    Heat can help relax tense muscles so they can move more freely. This can help ease the pressure on a pinched nerve. Applying cold to your neck can also be helpful. Doing so can help ease inflammation and swelling in neck soft tissue that may be pinching a nerve.
  • Get as much sleep as you can.
    Sleeping allows your body to recover from exertion and prepare for the next day’s demands. Stress hormones build up during the day and are released while you sleep. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night; children need more. It can be harder to sleep before your pinched nerve is treated, but try to get as much sleep as possible.
  • Stretch regularly.
    Gently stretching your neck can help ease pinched nerve and headache symptoms. Stretching can help your muscles to relax, and you can use stretches regularly to help prevent them from tightening up when they’re not being used.

SOL PT can help treat a pinched nerve in your neck that’s causing headaches

Have a pinched neck nerve that’s spawning frequent headaches? Our team at SOL Physical Therapy can show you how to manage headaches and other symptoms of pinched nerves. They can also build you a unique physical therapy plan intended to ease your symptoms and help prevent them from coming back. 

Contact our team today to learn more about our treatments or to set up an initial PT session.

About the author

Sports + Orthopedic Leaders Physical Therapy & Performance Training serves the communities of Oakland, Alameda, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Orinda, San Francisco and beyond. SOLPT’s award winning team of Physical Therapists, Performance Coaches and movement experts has helped thousands reach their rehabilitation and performance goals to move beyond pain. We're committed to helping anyone of any fitness level move effectively and more powerfully for a lifetime. We offer rehabilitation and performance services to all populations, with specialties in Sports Rehabilitation, Active Release Techniques, and Manual Therapy Techniques plus Personal and Small Group Training, Sport Clinics and Wellness Services.

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