Can a Pinched Nerve in the Neck Cause a Headache?

Pinched nerves in the neck are a common cause of headaches, muscle spasms, and other symptoms. They can be debilitating, but most of the time, symptoms clear up without medical treatment.

This article goes over how nerves in your neck become pinched, the possible symptoms, causes and risk factors, the diagnostic process, and treatment options for pinched nerves.

pinched neck nerve symptoms
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

What Is a Pinched Neck Nerve?

Nerves send messages between your brain and the rest of your body. The nerves in your neck and back branch off of the spinal cord, exit the spinal canal between vertebrae (the bones of your spine), and then travel through your body to connect to various tissues.

Nerve compression most often happens at the point where the nerve branches off. Bone spurs, a ruptured disc, and abnormal or inflamed tissues may press on the nerve. The medical term for a pinched neck nerve is cervical radiculopathy.

A 2016 study suggests nearly two out of every 1,000 people are diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy. You're most likely to develop it during your 40s and 50s and it's more common in people assigned male at birth than those assigned female.


A pinched nerve in the neck can cause headaches plus pain in the:

  • Shoulder
  • Arm
  • Upper back

Usually, the pain is on one side—the same side as your pinched nerve. The ache can spread down from the back of your skull to between the shoulder blades or up to your forehead, brow, and eye.

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

  • Muscle spasms
  • Pain when moving the neck
  • Same-side shoulder and arm pain, tingling, or numbness
  • Diminished strength, sensation, or coordination

Often, symptoms will clear up on their own as inflammation and muscle spasms resolve—relieving excess pressure on the nerve.

Headaches from pinched nerves can mimic a migraine, but the source of pain is in your neck. If you have a pinched nerve, turning your neck, nodding, or holding it in one position for a long time (such as sitting at a computer) can trigger this type of headache.

When the upper nerves in the neck are involved, it's called a cervicogenic headache. Headaches caused by pinched nerves in the lower neck are common as well.

Cervicogenic headaches can come and go and may last a few hours, days, or weeks at a time. Often, symptoms are triggered by things like a muscle spasm, sleeping in the wrong position, or sitting in an uncomfortable position,

Some medical conditions, including cancer or spinal infection, can cause symptoms similar to a pinched nerve in the neck.

Risk Factors

Anyone can get a pinched nerve in the neck, and the symptoms can fluctuate. Up to 30% of people report pain while simply sitting, walking, or standing. Others feel it after sneezing or coughing.

Researchers say the most common risk factors associated with a pinched nerve in the neck include:

  • Being White
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Having a prior pinched nerve
  • Frequently lifting heavy objects
  • Driving equipment that vibrates
  • Jumping off a diving board
  • Playing golf

When to Get Medical Attention

If you have new or changed headaches, call your healthcare provider if you also have any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Pain that's much worse at night
  • A weakened immune system
  • A history of cancer


Most of the time, a pinched nerve is due to age-related changes in the spine that lead to one of the following conditions:


To diagnose a pinched nerve, your healthcare provider will likely give you a physical exam and perform a few tests:

  • Reflex check: A pinched neck nerve can impair the reflex in the deep tricep tendon in the back of your upper arm. Your healthcare provider can gauge the response by tapping it with a rubber hammer.
  • Spurling maneuver: Your provider may have you turn your head to the affected side and then gently press down on the top of your head. A pinched nerve then causes pain, numbness, or tingling.
  • Imaging tests: Tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can confirm the diagnosis of a pinched nerve.

An MRI isn't always necessary. Healthcare providers typically only order them if your symptoms came on after an injury or they suspect a concerning medical condition such as spinal cord problems, infection, stroke, or cancer.

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Most symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck clear up on their own within six weeks. If treatment is necessary, it may include:

If treatments aren't effective and you didn't have an MRI during the diagnostic process, your healthcare provider may order imaging tests to figure out why you're still having headaches.


A pinched nerve in the neck can cause headaches and pain that spreads into your shoulders, arm, and upper back. It can lead to tingling and numbness in your hands and fingers, as well.

Anyone can get a pinched nerve, but they're more common in middle-aged to older people. They usually have to do with natural changes to your spine due to age.

Over-the-counter pain medicines can make you more comfortable. Physical therapy, chiropractic care, and wearing a neck collar can also help. Steroid injections are an option when those approaches don't work well.

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 (headaches caused by a pinched nerve in the upper neck).

  • How long does a cervicogenic headache last?

    These headaches are unpredictable, with varying frequency and duration. 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, healthcare providers recommend anti-inflammatory medications, rest, a neck collar, physical therapy, massage, or steroid injections before considering surgery.

    If symptoms such as weakness and loss of coordination worsen, you may need surgery.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Migraine Foundation. Cervicogenic headaches.

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

  3. Childress MA, Becker BA. Nonoperative management of cervical radiculopathy. Am Fam Physician. 2016;93(9):746-754.

  4. Varatharajan S, Ferguson B, Chrobak K, et al. Are non-invasive interventions effective for the management of headaches associated with neck pain? An update of the Bone and Joint Decade Task Force on Neck Pain and Its Associated Disorders by the Ontario Protocol for Traffic Injury Management (OPTIMa) CollaborationEur Spine J. 2016;25(7):1971-1999. doi:10.1007/s00586-016-4376-9

  5. National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Pinched nerve information page.

  6. Xiao H, Peng B, Ma K, et al. The Chinese Association for the Study of Pain (CASP): Expert consensus on the cervicogenic headachePain Res Manag. 2019;2019:9617280. Published 2019 Apr 1. doi:10.1155/2019/9617280

  7. American Academy of Neurology. Pinched nerve.

Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.