When dealing with a pinched nerve in the neck, recover without any invasive treatment is possible, but for some the pain from a pinched nerve in the neck and headache can persist for months or even years. Those who suffer from chronic headaches often do not connect their symptoms to a pinched nerve in the neck and continue to treat the headaches in isolation. Without removing the real cause of the headache however, no amount of NSAIDs or other medication will relieve the symptoms.
Causes of Headaches and Neck Pain
Neck problems may develop suddenly after a fall or accident, such as with whiplash, or they can creep up slowly over many years as degeneration takes place in the cervical spine. Often people do not connect these symptoms and neither do doctors. It is extremely important, therefore, to mention all symptoms to the physician as a seemingly separate problem may be connected to the one under discussion. Trauma such as whiplash can, for example, contribute to cervical facet joint disease in later life and this may result in headaches due to spinal nerve compression in the C1-C3 regions. Nerve compression at C2 is often responsible for posterior occipital headaches and temporal pain, whereas C3 nerve compression can cause occipital headache along with retro-orbital or retroauricular pain (behind the eyes or behind the ears). Blood vessels can also be compressed by tension in the muscles from stress or after an injury such as whiplash.
Certain occupations have an increased association with cervicogenic headaches including those where repetitive motions using the upper limbs are common. Taxi drivers and truck drivers, machine operators, call-center workers and receptionists, and even dentists and dental hygienists are more prone to pinched nerves in the neck due to muscle tension and postural problems. Those sitting at a computer for a considerable length of time each day are also at risk and it is important to take regular breaks and practice stretching and strengthening exercises in order to avoid neck problems.
Pinched Nerve in Neck and Headache Symptoms
Pinched nerve in the neck and headache may be the only symptom of the pinched nerve but is usually experienced alongside neck pain itself, and often with dizziness, nausea, and tension in the upper back and shoulders. Some patients will have radicular pain in the arms and hands due to nerve compression in the lower cervical spine in addition to the higher up vertebrae which is causing the headaches. Nonsurgical treatment is the usual approach to headaches and neck pain, although some patients may require urgent surgery where spinal cord compression is evident and a significant neurologic deficit exists.
When suffering from a pinched nerve in the neck and headache painkillers are largely unhelpful as the problem is often mechanical. If the bones in the spine are pressing on the nerves, or a herniated intervertebral disc is causing compression in the spinal canal then Motrin, Ibuprofen, and other medications will not address the pain as they might other types of headache. Narcotic medications may be used for cervical radiculopathy with some success, as are muscle relaxants, but these will only aid in cases where the muscles themselves are causing the trapped nerve. Where osteophyte growth is apparent, or where the spine has developed an abnormal curvature the patient may need decompression and/or fusion surgery to remove the pressure on the nerves. In some cases a herniated disc in neck may resolve itself over time and the pressure on the nerves will be removed thereby removing the cause of the pinched nerve in neck headache.
Some patients find that wearing a cervical collar can help as this may reduce irritation of the nerve through movement, thereby reducing inflammation and muscle spasm. However, the use of a cervical collar may make the muscles in the neck weak and unsupportive and actually exacerbate the problem in the longer term. Discussing the use of a support device with a qualified medical professional is the best course of action to avoid worsening the condition. It may be, in some cases, that the warmth provided by a cervical collar may actually be sufficient on its own to provide relief. Staying away from draughts, which can cause the muscles of the neck and shoulders to tense, and ensuring good posture can help reduce muscle spasm and tension headaches.
Yoga and Pilates as a Treatment for Pinched Nerve Headache
Yoga, pilates, and some relaxation techniques may provide relief from neck pain and headaches, as can massage and acupuncture. Engaging in physical activities where postural improvements often take place, such as archery, can help prevent the neck pain and headaches returning. If cervical spinal stenosis through a mechanical abnormality is causing the pinched nerve then these treatments are unlikely to relieve the headaches and neck pain.
Differential diagnoses for chronic headaches, including a pinched nerve in neck headache, may involve high blood pressure, sinusitis, eyestrain, tumor growth, temporomandibular joint syndrome, dental problems, and stress, amongst other things. Pinched nerves most often occur in a person’s forties or fifties and are usually made worse by coughing, sneezing, or by straining when constipated. Establishing the real cause of the headache means that appropriate treatment can be applied, otherwise therapy may do more harm than good.