Oh no... a migraine is coming.
How do I know? My neck hurts.
Every time I feel that dull ache start at the top of my neck I know the migraine is on its way. It's a dull ache for me, not a sharp stabbing pain. It’s sometimes called 'neck tension,' but it can actually be a fairly intense pain. I've heard that other migraine sufferers get this same dull, achy feeling as much as a day before their migraine actually hits.
For me, when my neck aches like this, I know to expect the intense pain of my migraine attack within an hour. I'm glad I have this warning because it gives me time to prepare for the pain to come.
Until recently, I didn't know how common 'neck tension' and neck pain with migraines are. It turns out that more than half of the migraine population experience neck pain before and/or during a migraine attack. While in most cases it's limited to the upper neck region, sometimes the pain radiates to the lower neck and/or shoulder. I learned this from a few studies I found online:
A 2018 Migraine in America survey shows that 69% of migraine sufferers surveyed reported dealing with neck pain when they have migraines.
A small study published in the Headache Journal shows that among the 113 individuals evaluated, neck pain was more common for migraine patients than nausea!
And finally, a recent study in 2018 and conducted by Medical Faculty, SANKO University in Turkey. The researchers wanted to answer this question: Neck pain: is it part of a migraine attack or a trigger before a migraine attack?
They concluded "...that neck pain begins simultaneously with migraine attacks and concurrently, and may be part of migraine attacks accordingly."
Which really means there is no definitive and final clinical study...yet...that states neck pain is a precursor or cause of a migraine. I know, annoying, right? But, as with all research, we have to start somewhere.
I like information from these kinds of studies because it shows me 2 things:
- that my neck pain isn't a unique symptom and
- that the common ways to cope with 'neck tension' work for we migraine suffers, too.
The reason some migraineurs have neck pain
Before getting into the different ways to cope with this pain, wouldn’t you like to why this pain happens?
An important brain area in migraine is the trigeminocervical complex. It’s a hub for pain nerves of the face and upper neck. Researchers think that this entire complex is irritated during a migraine, which would explain why the pain extends into the neck for some sufferers.
Knowing this made it easier to understand why some of the ways I cope with the neck actually work.
How many migraineurs cope with neck pain
When it comes to relieving the neck pain it turns out we have quite a few options available to choose from.
Look them over. Do like I did and try them all. What will happen is you will find the combination that works for you. Here they are:
Apply firm pressure. Apply compression on the temples, forehead, and/or back of the neck with your fingertips, hands, or wrap a handkerchief or short scarf around your head.
Cold therapy (my favorite). Cold therapy decreases blood flow and reduces muscle spasms and inflammation … that’s how it relieves pain. This is where you use an ice or a cold pack. Fill a plastic food storage bag with ice, then wrap a dishtowel around it. Or, use a small bag of frozen peas or corn. Then – place it on your neck for no more than 15 minutes at a time.
Massage. A massage therapist may help relieve pain in trigger points (tender nodules in the neck and scalp muscles) through different massage techniques.
Dry needling. A medical professional (usually a physical or sport injury therapist) trained in dry needling will place thin, sterile needles into painful trigger points in your neck and/or head. It’s similar to acupuncture but focuses only on trigger points and muscles, while acupuncture is energy focused and is applied differently. The goal of dry needling is to release tension in irritable muscles and their connective tissues. So, it makes sense that it would offer relief from chronic tension-type headaches and from migraine attacks.
Acupuncture. According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, an energy imbalance or stagnation within the body may contribute to neck pain and headaches. Acupuncture is one method for trying to get this energy to start flowing again. You’ll need to see a licensed acupuncturist. What they will do is place ultra-thin needles at specific acupoints on your body.
What works for me is a combination of cold therapy and aromatherapy and firm pressure. I put a small bag of frozen corn on my neck for about 10 minutes. Then I rub a bit of soothing cream along the sides and back of my neck. I like the smell of mint and the feel of menthol because it’s cool as I apply it. Finally, if my migraine is progressing, I put on a migraine cold therapy hat that provides more cooling relief plus gentle pressure on my head.
By the time my migraine attack hits, my neck is relaxed and the pain is pretty much gone.
What works for me may not work for you. That’s why I want to encourage you to try each one of these tips so you can find the combination that will work for you.
If you want to try a soothing cream, Migrastil Soothing Neck and Shoulder Cream just might be the one that will work for you. It’s a gentle, muted mint scent with a hint of ginger and the menthol feels cool as you rub it in.