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In some cases, neck pain is caused by structural problems in the neck, such as with the muscles and joints of the vertebrae. Examples include arthritis, problems with the discs between the vertebrae and whiplash injuries. As expected, neck conditions commonly cause neck pain that may spread to the back and shoulders. However, a headache may accompany this neck pain. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warns that a person with a neck condition who develops headaches should consult his/her doctor. This is especially true if the headache is accompanied by sensation changes, such as tingling in the hands or any numbness. Sometimes, medical conditions can cause neck and headache pain as a side effect. These include conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, such as fibromyalgia.
Neck pain is commonly associated with headaches. In fact, "cervicogenic headaches" are the most commonly overlooked type of headache. They are commonly misdiagnosed as other types of headaches. They are caused by disorders of the cervical spine (neck). The cervical spine contains many structures that can be pain generators. These include, but are not limited to, the discs, facet joints, spinal nerves, muscles, and ligaments.
Cervicogenic headaches are often accompanied with neck, mid, upper back or shoulder pain. Stiffness and soreness in the muscles of the neck, shoulders or upper back is also very common. You may find increased pain or tenderness in the neck at the same time the headache pain increases, often a reliable clue. A careful history may reveal previous trauma or injury, such as whiplash.
Treatment is geared toward treating the source of the pain. A pain management consultant can perform procedures such as cervical facet injections or epidurals. I discussed the use of radiofrequency ablation on The Dr. Oz Show segment "Cutting Edge Treatments for Pain, Part 3". The segment begins at 35seconds: http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/cutting-edge-pain-solutions-pt-3
A full neurological evaluation should be performed first to ensure that other causes are ruled out. Common tests include MRI imaging of the brain and cervical spine. As always, discuss your headache with your doctor before assuming the source of the pain is your neck.
Regardless of whether chronic pain has slowly crept into your life or it stems from a traumatic event such as a car accident, neck pain and headaches have their roots in two problems: poor shoulder function and poor neck function. Fixing problems in these two areas is fundamental to regaining control of your headaches and neck pain.
I typically see problems such as disk bulges, degenerative disk disease, disk herniations, and arthritis in the neck -- you name it. I call these structural diagnoses because they describe a physical problem that can be seen on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other scan. Because these physical problems can be seen with a scan, the conclusion is that the structural damage is the cause of your pain. I liken this to seeing an X-ray of a broken left thumb and appropriately casting it to heal without realizing that the right hand is continually hitting it with a hammer. Until we can make the right hand stop, the left thumb will continue to be reinjured, if it ever really heals at all. Yes, the broken bone is painful, but the right hand continues to deliver more pain and injury, preventing true healing from occurring. I believe something similar is happening that causes these structural changes in the body. I interpret the presence of these structural diagnoses as evidence of functional problems (those in which muscles or joints do not move optimally, creating stress to the tissues).
This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.