A Headache From a Pinched Nerve

Diagnosis and Treatment

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Having a pinched nerve in your neck can be...well, a real pain in the neck. Anyone can get one.

Pinched nerves in the neck can cause muscle spasms, headaches, and other symptoms. Most symptoms will usually clear up on their own. Sometimes though, a pinched nerve can be debilitating. Read on to learn more about pinched nerves in your neck, the symptoms they can cause, and how to relieve them.

pinched neck nerve symptoms
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

What Is a Pinched Neck Nerve?


Nerves are fibers that send messages to and from your brain. A nerve can become compressed where it branches off of the spinal cord. Bone spurs, a ruptured disc, or other tissues might press on the nerve. The medical term for a pinched neck nerve is cervical radiculopathy.

This can cause pain that spreads into the shoulder, arm, and upper back on that side. It can weaken arm muscles and make your hands and fingers tingle or turn numb.

A U.S. military study found that nearly two out of every 1000 people are diagnosed with this condition. It's more common in men than women and occurs most often between the ages of 50 and 54.

Symptoms

Besides shoulder, arm, and upper back pain, a pinched nerve in the neck can also cause certain kinds of headaches. Usually, the pain is on the same side as your pinched nerve.

The aching can spread down from the back of your skull to between the shoulder blades or to your forehead, brow, and eye.

When the upper nerves in the neck are involved, healthcare providers call it a cervicogenic headache. Headaches caused by pinched nerves in the lower neck are common as well.

These headaches can mimic a migraine, but the source of your pain is in your neck. Turning your neck, nodding, or holding it in one position for a long time, like staring at a computer, can trigger this type of headache if you have a pinched nerve.

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 uncomfortably,

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 the excess pressure on the nerve.

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

If you have a fever, suddenly lose weight, your pain is much worse at night, or if you have a weakened immune system or a history of cancer, you should call your healthcare provider about any new or changed headaches.

Risk Factors

Anyone can get a pinched nerve in the neck, and the symptoms can fluctuate. Up to 30% of patients report pain while simply sitting, walking, or standing. Others experience 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
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Driving equipment that vibrates
  • Jumping off a diving board
  • Playing golf

Causes

Most of the time, a pinched nerve is due to one of the following conditions:

Diagnosis

After examining you, your healthcare provider will usually check your reflexes. A common sign of a pinched nerve in the neck is that you will have a decreased deep tricep tendon reflex. This tendon is at the back of your arm above the elbow. Your healthcare provider will tap it with a rubber hammer to see the response.

Another test is called the Spurling maneuver. Your healthcare provider will gently press down on the top of your head with your neck turned to the affected side. You may have a pinched nerve in your neck if the downward pressure causes pain, numbness, or tingling.

Imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can confirm the diagnosis of a pinched nerve. They're usually not necessary though.

Healthcare providers typically don't order an MRI for these symptoms unless you've had trauma or if your symptoms or physical examination are consistent with a concerning medical condition—such as spinal cord problems, infection, stroke, or cancer.

Headaches Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

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

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Treatment

Most symptoms of a pinched nerve in the neck clear up on their own within six weeks. One study found that physical therapy or wearing a neck collar may help.

Your healthcare provider will likely suggest taking an over-the-counter painkiller. Advil (ibuprofen) and other similar drugs can help ease muscle pain and headaches due to pinched nerves.

Massage and chiropractic care may also help lessen your symptoms. Healthcare providers sometimes inject steroids near the affected nerve to relieve inflammation if pain medication and other conservative treatments have not been effective. 

If your symptoms persist, your healthcare provider will likely order imaging tests.

Summary

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

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 that happen to your spine as you age.

Over-the-counter pain medicines can make you more comfortable. Physical therapy, chiropractic care, and wearing a neck collar can also help.

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 vary. 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. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe a neck collar, physical therapy, and steroid injections to reduce inflammation around the nerve. If symptoms such as physical weakness and loss of coordination worsen, it may be necessary to have surgery.

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10 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.
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