Chronic migraines affect around 2% of people across the world, according to The Migraine Trust, and a high number of those affected deal with significant impairment during migraine attacks. More recent studies have shown that many individuals who deal with migraines also experience neck pain. The neck and head are obviously closely connected, but what’s the link between neck pain and migraines? Do migraines result in neck pain, or is neck pain causing your migraines?
How Common is Neck Pain Among Migraine Sufferers?
The 2018 Migraine in America survey uncovered the fact that 69% of migraine sufferers surveyed reported dealing with neck pain when they have migraines. Another study published in the Headache journal discovered that among the 113 individuals evaluated, neck pain was more common for migraine patients than nausea. Many people report that the neck pain begins before a migraine, although for many, this precursor goes on to last through the migraine attack, as well.
Migraine Neck-Related Symptoms
With some studies showing that neck pain may be even more common than nausea in migraine sufferers, it’s important to be aware of some of the symptoms of migraine that are related to pain and discomfort in the neck. These include:
- Pain that’s located only one side of the head
- Headache pain behind the eyes
- Stiffness and tightness in the neck
- Headaches that grow worse if you apply pressure to certain areas of the neck
- Pain spreading from the back of the neck and head up to the front
- Reduction in range of movement for the neck
While many people write off the above symptoms as related to neck pain, in many cases they could actually be a sign of a migraine attack.
In the past, neck pain was thought to be a migraine trigger. However, a 2018 study in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that neck pain is actually a symptom of a migraine attack. Unfortunately, it continues to be an overlooked symptom, and many patients mistake it for a neck pain syndrome.
One study showed that in 90% of cases where patients thought they had a cervical (neck) pain syndrome, they actually had migraines. Some of the reasons patients thought they were just dealing with a neck pain syndrome included:
- Pain was triggered by weather changes
- This condition ran in their family
- Pain began in the back of their neck
- They had other symptoms like vertigo and dizziness
- The neck pain occurred before other symptoms
- They dealt with nausea and vomiting along with the pain
However, all of these symptoms go along with migraines. And many patients misdiagnose themselves as having cervical pain syndrome when they’re actually experiencing migraine attacks.
Causes of Migraine and Neck Pain
We know a link between migraine and neck pain exists, but what actually causes it? An important brain area in migraine is the trigeminocervical complex, a hub for pain nerves of the face and upper neck. Researchers think that this entire complex is activated during a migraine, which would explain why the pain extends into the neck for some patients.
Some researchers think that other inputs into the trigeminocervical complex might play a role in aggravating headaches in people with migraine. Musculoskeletal problems in the neck, like migraines, also activate nerves of the upper neck that are part of this trigeminocervical complex. Musculoskeletal problems of the neck include:
- Posture. Posture problems refer to the way you hold your shoulders, walk, stand, and could even be related to where you work or the type of work you’re doing. Individuals who spend hours at a desk may be more likely to develop posture problems that affect the neck. While posture is known as a significant trigger for tension headaches, it doesn’t get the attention it should within the migraine community.
- Joint disease: Wear and tear of the joints within the neck occurs as one ages, and that could cause neck pain that stimulates nerves in the neck that extend into the head. Dysfunction of the neck joints of any type could result in pain that moves up into the head, causing a migraine in individuals who are prone to them.
However, it’s important to note that while all of these issues could potentially be the cause of neck pain in migraine, researchers still are not completely sure how or why neck pain occurs as a symptom of migraine. And some patients with migraine can have neck problems completely independent of that condition, like arthritis or a pinched nerve.
Keeping Track of Neck Pain and Other Migraine Symptoms
One of the best things you can do is to keep track of your neck pain and other migraine symptoms. Tracking symptoms can help you discover any triggers or patterns to your migraine attacks, and you may want to discuss the results with your doctor. Some of the things you may want to record include:
- Where and when the neck pain and/or other symptoms begin?
- Does the pain spread throughout your entire neck and head or is it located in one spot?
- How long does the neck pain and/or other symptoms last?
- Do you experience other symptoms with the neck pain like light sensitivity, vision changes, or nausea?
- How well does your migraine treatment relieve the migraine and neck pain? How quickly does it work?
Despite the recently uncovered high prevalence of neck pain in migraine sufferers and the discovery that neck pain is actually a migraine symptom, we still don’t know enough about the link between the two. Additional research is needed to help uncover more information on migraines that will lead to a cure. Help the Will Erwin Headache Research Center as they work to find a cure for migraines and cluster headaches. Join other supporters and make a difference by donating to help researchers find a cure today.