One of the most common types of headaches you can suffer from is a tension headache at the base of your neck. It may be quite painful and cause some discomfort so if the problem affects you too, find out what the possible reasons and remedies for this type of headache are.
A Definition of a Headache
When you start your fight against headaches, first get to know your enemy and learn what types of headaches can be enumerated.
By headaches we understand pain and discomfort in our head or some part of the face. Headaches vary depending on the person. They can be strong or mild, occasional or chronic, serious and insignificant. They may appear in almost every part of our head or face.
A network of nerves which is located over your scalp is a common culprit of headaches. The muscles which can be found in your head, shoulders, or neck, and nerves that run through your face and mouth may be responsible for your headaches as well. Also, blood vessels which run along the surface and base of the brain may be the cause of a headache.
Tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches are three main types of headaches, which can happen to us. The most frequent type of a headache is a tension headache. It usually appears at the back of the neck and it’s usually a consequence of stiffened muscles and too much stress in everyday life.
Migraines are very troublesome types of headaches as apart from pain you can also experience other unpleasant symptoms, such as vomiting or sensitivity to light. What’s more, migraines often occur periodically and once they attack you, they don’t want to go away for even a few days.
Cluster headaches are probably the worst as the pain you experience is severe and it can last for a few weeks or months. The pain usually appears on one side of the head, usually behind one eye, which may also be watery or reddish. A blocked nose might be an accompanying symptom as well.
All kinds of headaches are also classified as primary or secondary ones. We talk about a primary headache when it’s a predominant problem. A secondary headache, on the other hand, is just a symptom of some underlying medical problem. For example, eye problems often result in headaches.
The Causes of a Headache at the Base of the Neck
In medical terms a headache at the base of your neck is called an occipital neuralgia. This type of a headache occurs when there is pressure on your occipital nerves or they are irritated by something.
This type of a headache usually appears as a consequence of neck injuries, stiff muscles in the neck, or tension in the neck. Other causes include some disorders of cervical disc and osteoarthritis. The most dangerous source of pain at the back of the neck is a tumor, luckily, it doesn’t happen often.
The inflammation of blood vessels, diabetes, and gout are also among the causes of occipital neuralgia. Also, if you do dynamic sports or you experienced some accident, it’s possible that you strained some muscle, which is actually quite a common cause of pain at the back of the neck.
If the movement that led to the injury was really quick or sudden, you may have even torn or ruptured your muscle, which may also lead to inflammation and swelling.
The most common cause of headaches at the base of the neck, however, is actually a bad posture of your body. People who lead a sedentary lifestyle and don’t do any sports regularly are more likely to develop a headache at the base of the neck. What’s more, even when we sit, we have a bad posture too, tending to lean our head forward.
Particular muscles, joints, and ligaments hold our head up, but when our body posture is poor, there is too much pressure on them. If we don’t change our bad habits, the muscles get stiff, weak, and they lose their flexibility. A headache at the base of the neck is the consequence of this bad routine.
The level of serotonin and endorphins in your brain may also lead to tension headaches as they are chemicals that have the ability to prevent pain. Every time they suddenly go up or down, you may experience as a headache at the base of the neck.
People with osteoarthritis may suffer from a headache at the base of the neck as their spinal structure has been worn. Bony outgrowths, knowns as osteophytes or bone spurs, form putting pressure on the soft tissues, such as our nerves.
Another condition of a cervical spine is known as a disc herniation. It happens when your disc was pushed outside as a result of too much pressure. In consequence your nerves may be irritated and sensitive, which of course may cause some pain at the base of the neck.
People who are over fifty may sometimes develop a condition known as occipital bone osteoporosis, which may lead to tension headaches as well.
Also, have a closer look at your sleeping position as bad body posture may strain your neck muscles or result in a stiff neck. You should sleep on your back and it’s recommended to stabilize your neck. A headache at the base of the neck is also a problem of people who have chronic sleeping difficulties.
In rare cases a cancer develops in the bones of a cervical spine. Luckily, the majority of tumors are benign and your doctor will suspect it only as a last option if your headache is chronic and it doesn’t respond to any medical treatment.
How to Find the Cause of Pain
As you can see there are various causes of a headache at the base of the neck. Therefore, if it’s not just an incident and it starts to worry you or the pain is so severe that it doesn’t respond to over-the-counter painkillers, consult your doctor.
As there are so many possible causes of a headache at the base of the neck, your doctor will have to run some medical tests and perform a thorough evaluation. Therefore, you will have to describe your headache in details. Tell the doctor what the exact location of your headache is and when it occurs.
Try to recall when the headaches started and if some position of your body triggers the pain. Your doctor will also ask you about your lifestyle, stress in your everyday life, any sleeping difficulties or if you’ve experienced any injuries recently.
During the examination a physical test might be performed as well. The doctor might, for example, perform a common test known as a nerve block, which will quickly tell him if you suffer from occipital neuralgia. He will simply blunt your nerve and if it brings you relief from pain, it’s a proof that it’s an occipital neuralgia what you’ve been suffering from.
Your doctor may also press various points at the back of your head to check if it causes any pain. Your blood compounds may also give your doctor some information about your headaches, thus, you will need to have blood tests done.
If basic tests don’t show your doctor the cause of your headaches, he can also recommend you x-rays or MRI which stands for magnetic resonance imaging as it will give a detailed picture of the structures of your body.
He may also require a computed tomography scan which is the most detailed one as apart from organs and bones, it also shows your fat and muscles. However, be aware that CAT scan or MRI scan are required only if your symptoms are atypical and your doctor has a problem with diagnosing your headache.
Possible Treatments of a Headache at the Base of the Neck
Right diagnosis is actually the key to find the best treatment for your headache as the therapy depends on the cause of your pain.
Fortunately, there are some methods you can try on your own at home. They won’t treat the cause of your problem, but they will bring quick, though, temporary relief from pain. If your pain is only occasional and it isn’t a sign of any serious condition, these solutions might appear really helpful.
Every time you suffer from a headache at the base of the neck, you should have a rest in some quiet place and you can also apply a warm compress on the neck. A delicate massage can also help. Do it on your own if you can reach a painful place or ask a friend or a family member to do it for you. Try some safe, over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
If your headache occurs because of a muscle injury, your doctor might prescribe you some muscle relaxants or when over-the-counter medicines don’t work, he may recommend you some stronger painkillers. If you don’t use muscle relaxants or painkillers too often, they are safe and can effectively relax strained muscles and bring relief from pain.
If your headache is the result of rheumatoid arthritis, your doctor will probably prescribe you corticosteroids. They will successfully reduce pain and soothe the inflammation of your joints.
If the cause of your headache at the base of the neck is stress or depression, some doctors decide to prescribe antidepressants. Remember, though, that it’s not the solution to your problem as it only cures the symptom, but not the cause. You should start a therapy with a psychiatrist or psychologist, who will help you to deal with you mental problems.
In case of a pinched nerve or a compressed disc your doctor may recommend you so called neck traction. It’s a strap which is placed at the back of your nape and below your jaw. It will reduce the pressure from your ligaments and muscles.
Steroid injections and a nerve block may successfully eliminate pain for a few weeks or months, but similarly to antidepressants, it’s only a symptomatic treatment, which won’t solve the problem, but a symptom only.
A so called chiropractic treatment is a good option for people who don’t like taking medicines regularly. A chiropractor manipulates on your spine in order to restore a proper alignment to your spinal column. It usually helps to release the tension and reduce the pain.
If you don’t respond to any treatment and the headaches are so strong that you can’t lead a normal life, there is still an option of a surgery. It’s a last resort, though, which will be recommended to you only if nothing helps you. If the problem is in your blood vessels that put pressure on your nerves, an operation known as microvascular decompression might help.
Stimulation of the occipital nerve is another interesting idea. During the operation the surgeon uses a neurostimulator in order to carry electrical pulses to your occipital nerves. This way, your brain won’t respond to pain messages.
There is one treatment, which is suitable for everyone, no matter what the cause of your headache is. It’s a physical activity. There are special exercises, which are safe and don’t require much of your time, but can effectively reduce headaches at the base of the neck.
Physical Exercises for a Headache at the Base of the Neck
The following exercises are considered to be safe for everyone. However, it’s always recommended to consult your doctor before you start doing them. As the irritation of the occipital nerve is the most common cause of a occipital neuralgia, exercises may be incredibly helpful. You need to do them regularly, though.
One of the easiest exercises you can try is known as neck rotation. You may either sit or stand while doing the exercise, but it’s important to keep your head in a straight line with your spine. All you need to do is to rotate your head to the left and right.
While doing it, hold your head straight and try to stretch as far as possible, but stop if you feel any strain or pain. Hold for a while and move back to the starting position. Repeat it a few times every day. It’s a great exercise because you can even do it at work.
A sub-occipital neck stretch in another amazing exercise. Sit comfortably in a chair where your back is well supported. Hold your neck and spine in a line with the spine. Now place your pointer and a middle finger of your right or left hand on your chin. Try to push your chin back, but be gentle.
Keep your mouth closed while exercising and just move your head back. You should feel a slight stretch at the sides and at the back of your neck. Stay in the position for a few seconds and repeat it a few times.
If you want to work a little bit on the flexion and extension of your neck, you can do an easy exercise. Sit comfortably in a chair with your hands placed on your knees. Keep your head and neck in a straight line with the spine. Now, lean your head back so that you are able to look at the ceiling. Move back to the opening position.
Try to lean your head forward now, trying to touch your chest with the chin. Move back to the opening position. You should do this ten times every day.
No matter what kind of headaches you suffer from, you should start doing exercises that originate from yoga practice. It will relax not only your stiff muscles, but also your mind and such a combination is a wonderful remedy to headaches.
One yoga pose which might be exceptionally helpful is known as savasana. It’s a position in which you need to fully relax your body and mind. Thus, lie down on your back in a quiet and peaceful place. Put a pillow under your head to support your neck. It’s recommended to tie your eyes for even greater relaxation.
Keep your legs in a natural position, your arms at your sides with palms facing up. Try to stay like that for around thirty minutes, concentrating only on your breathing, try not to think about anything, just empty your mind from all the thoughts.
At the beginning you will probably fidget and it will be difficult for you to calm down your thoughts. You can start with staying in the position for just a few minutes and every day trying to stay a little bit longer.
You will see that after a few unsuccessful attempts, you will learn to bring yourself in the state of deep relaxation, which might be extremely helpful in getting rid of headaches at the base of the neck.
Can You Prevent Headaches at the Base of the Neck
If you know that your headache at the base of the neck is not a consequence of some serious condition, you need to observe it and try to recognize what triggers it and then avoid this factor. Nevertheless, there are some general tips which might help you eliminate the problem.
The first thing you should do is working on your body posture. Remember not to lean forward, instead sit and walk straight. If you need to sit a lot at your work, walk along the room from time to time or do a few, quick stretching exercises. Moreover, make sure that you have a chair with a solid backrest that keep your back straight.
Another key rule is to be physically active as a strong, healthy spine can significantly reduce the risk of getting headaches at the back of your neck. Also, if your muscles are weak, they are more susceptible to injuries and stiffness. Thus, work out regularly, at least three times a week, including some weightlifting exercises for a strong body.
Another piece of advice might sound surprising, but there are some scientific studies which have proved that too much of food enhancers may lead to various types of headaches. The most dangerous is apparently Monosodium Glutamate. It turns out that some people are sensitive to this compound, which results in headaches.
If you use a small amount of it, that’s not a problem. Often, however, we are even not aware that it can be found in several food products. Therefore, read labels while doing shopping and try to avoid it for a few weeks to check if that’s also your issue.
Nitrates and amines are also substances which may be the consequence of headaches. Nitrates can be found in lima beans, yeast bread, and chocolate. Amines are mainly used in highly processed food, such as bacon, hamburgers, hot dogs, and salami. Thus, avoid these products as well.
On the other hand, there are also some food products which should be the part of your diet if you want to eliminate your headaches. For example, omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in fish, are considered to be a very important factor in the fight against headaches. Eat fish at least three times a day or take capsules with fish oil.
Another powerful food product is ginger, which promotes the release of thromboxane A2, a substance which helps you to have proper blood flow and this may effectively prevent headaches at the base of the neck.
You should also make sure that you take a proper amount of magnesium as it has been proved that it can release the tension in your muscles, which may be the culprit of your headaches, especially if you are a woman and you suffer from them before menstruation.
Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to take a proper amount of magnesium from food only. Therefore, you should also supplement it in the amount of minimum 200 mg a day.
A lot of people recommend drinking coffee as a solution to headache. However, it can only help you if your headache is a consequence of low blood pressure and it happens just from time to time. If your headache is a typical tension headache, even the strongest coffee won’t help you.