A Headache From a Pinched Nerve

Diagnosis and Treatment

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Do you suspect that a pinched nerve in your neck is the culprit behind your headache? A pinched nerve in the neck—known medically as cervical radiculopathy—occurs when a nerve root in your neck is compressed or irritated. This condition is more common in men and most prevalent in people 50 to 54 years of age and can be recognized by a few symptoms.

pinched neck nerve symptoms
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Pinched Neck Nerve Symptoms

While often not the first symptom described, many individuals with a pinched nerve in the neck suffer from headaches. When the upper nerve roots are involved, the headache is described as a cervicogenic headache. However, headaches caused by lower nerves in the neck are more common.

Usually, the head pain is located on the same side as the affected nerve root and is described as aching in nature. Often, the headache will move (radiate) from the back of the head to the forehead, and there is tenderness when pressure is applied to the muscles in the neck on the same side as the pinched nerve.

Additional symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck may include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain when moving the neck
  • Same-sided shoulder and arm pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Weakness

Symptoms like fever, sudden weight loss, pain that is especially worse at night, or having a history of cancer or a suppressed immune system (along with this new pain) require immediate medical attention.

Medical conditions like cancer, a spinal abscess, or a condition called cervical myelopathy cause symptoms that can mimic those of radicular neck pain.


Generally speaking, a pinched nerve in the neck is caused by one of the following health conditions:


A thorough physical exam by your primary care physician may be all you need to diagnose a pinched nerve in your neck. Your healthcare provider will also check your reflexes, as decreased deep tendon reflexes (especially of the triceps) may be present.

One diagnostic test is called the Spurling maneuver, in which your healthcare provider will press down on the top of your head when it is turned to the affected side. If this downward pressure reproduces your symptoms (like pain, numbness, or tingling), then this is suggestive of a pinched nerve.

Imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomographic images of the spine (CT cervical spine), or computed tomographic myelography (CT myelography) can confirm the diagnosis of a pinched nerve but is not always necessary.

Imaging is mostly used to rule out serious or even life-threatening causes for neck pain like spinal cord compression or signs of infection, stroke, or cancer, or in the case of trauma (like after a car accident). 

In the end, if you believe your headache is a potential symptom of a pinched nerve, please see your healthcare provider, so a proper evaluation can be performed.

Headaches Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Treatment of a Pinched Nerve in the Neck

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are generally prescribed for acute pain relief from a pinched nerve in the neck. Oral steroids are sometimes used, but long-term use should be avoided due to potential side effects.

As always, please consult your healthcare provider before taking any medication, as they all have potential adverse effects. For instance, muscle relaxants may cause sedation and NSAIDs can cause stomach ulcers and bleeding, kidney problems, and an allergic reaction in some people.

Physical therapy is a complementary treatment to medication for a pinched nerve, as is a message. Cervical nerve root blocks, in which steroids are injected into the affected nerve to relieve inflammation, are also sometimes used if a person continues to have pain despite medication and physical therapy. 

If people with cervical radiculopathy continue to have symptoms despite the therapies above (usually four to six weeks), they are often referred for imaging of the spine (if not done already) and/or to a spine surgeon.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect a pinched nerve as the source of your headache, speak with your healthcare provider. Do not let this headache disrupt your life and restrict activities you enjoy doing.

While this may not be a condition that can be cured, with the help of your primary care physician, spine specialist, and physical therapist, you can find a therapy regimen or solution that works well for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can a chiropractor help with a pinched nerve headache?

    Yes, in some instances spinal manipulation by a chiropractor can improve cervicogenic headaches.

  • How long does a cervicogenic headache last?

    These headaches are unpredictable. The frequency and duration of a cervicogenic headache varies. They may come and go with episodes lasting a few hours or days. 

  • Do you need surgery to get rid of a pinched nerve?

    Only in very severe cases. Normally, NSAIDs and rest can relieve pain. Oral steroids and physical therapy may also be prescribed. If symptoms such as physical weakness get progressively worse, it may be necessary to have surgery.

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Article Sources
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  1. Childress MA, Becker BA. Nonoperative management of cervical radiculopathy. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(9):746-54.

  2. American Migraine Foundation. Cervicogenic headaches. Updated October 24, 2016.

  3. Iyer S, Kim HJ. Cervical radiculopathy. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2016;9(3):272-80. doi:10.1007/s12178-016-9349-4

  4. The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York. Pinched nerve.

  5. NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Pinched nerve information page. Updated March 27, 2019.

  6. Bryans R, Descarreaux M, Duranleau M, et al. Evidence-based guidelines for the chiropractic treatment of adults with headache. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 2011;34(5):274-289. doi:10.1016/j.jmpt.2011.04.008

  7. Antonaci F, Ghirmai S, Bono G, Sandrini G, Nappi G. Cervicogenic headache: evaluation of the original diagnostic criteria. Cephalalgia. 2001;21(5):573-583. doi:10.1046%2Fj.0333-1024.2001.00207.x

  8. American Academy of Neurology. Pinched nerve.

Additional Reading
  • Childress MA, Becker BA. Nonoperative management of cervical radiculopathy. Am Fam Physician. 2016 May 1;93(9):746-54.

  • Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

  • Persson L, Carlsson J, & Anderberg L. Headache in patients with cervical radiculopathy: a prospective study with selective nerve root blocks in 275 patients. Eur Spine J.2007 July;16(7):953-9.