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The Connection Between Neck, Shoulder Pain and Headache

Just a stiff neck, or could there be a connection between headache, neck and shoulder pain?

When you wake up with a stiff neck, shoulder pain and a headache, it’s tempting to connect your symptoms – and there’s a good possibility they are related. But is your neck pain causing headaches, or is your headache and shoulder pain causing your neck to ache? Sometimes the causes of these aches and pains are non-specific, but conditions such as tension headaches can connect all three symptoms.

Other possibilities include jaw problems and posture or ergonomic issues. Excedrin can help relieve headache, neck and shoulder pain, but identifying the cause will help with the selection of the right treatment.

That crick in your neck? There may be several causes.

Neck and shoulder pain will affect many people at some point in their life. There are various possible causes for neck and shoulder pain, and studies suggest that both physical and psychosocial (a combination of psychological and social) factors may contribute to the problem.1

Physical factors include prolonged sitting, working in the same position for a long time, prolonged holding of a bent forward head position, forceful and repetitive tasks, working with the hands overhead, working with vibrating tools, and prolonged use of computers.2

Chances are, if you’ve got an office job, you’ve suffered from ‘computer hunch’ — that pain in the neck and shoulders that can come from sitting too long in front of your computer. While ‘computer hunch’ isn’t a medical term, the pain you may feel in the neck and shoulders does have a basis in science.

A study of more than 1,300 office workers showed that those who spent more than 70 percent of their working time with the neck bent forward at an angle of 20 degrees or more were at an increased risk for neck pain. Similarly, workers who sat for more than 95 percent of their working time had twice the risk for neck pain than workers who hardly ever sat.3

People may also experience neck and shoulder pain due to psychological or psychosocial factors, such as mental stress. High-strain jobs, or jobs that have high demands but low control (meaning little authority), have been shown to be associated with neck and shoulder pain in some people. Interestingly, a similar association with neck and shoulder pain has been found in workers with jobs that feature high demands and high control.4

Does neck and shoulder pain cause headaches?

Neck and shoulder pain often co-exist with headaches and may even cause or aggravate them.

Studies show that tension-type headaches often occur alongside an increase in tenderness in the neck and shoulder muscles. Tender spots in the muscles or connective tissues of the body are often referred to as trigger points and are painful when touched. Trigger points can be felt as nodules, or knots, in tight muscles.6 7

Tension or stress headache sufferers may be more sensitive to the pain caused by tenderness in the neck and shoulders. This could either bring on or worsen a headache.2

In tension-type headaches, the pain is described as a band tightening around the head or a feeling of pressure in or around both sides of the head. It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of adults experience this type of neck pain and headaches in the back of the head.

Can jaw problems cause headache, neck and shoulder pain?

Yes. In fact, if you often wake up with a headache, alongside a sore neck and shoulders, you could be experiencing temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome. With TMJ syndrome (or TMJ disorder), you may have damage or misalignment of the TMJ – the joint that connects your jaw to your skull, just in front of your ear. In some cases, TMJ can cause headaches, as well as pain in the neck, shoulders or back. TMJ disorders can be caused by various kinds of trauma or disease:4

  • Bruxism (or teeth grinding): The repetitive muscle movements can cause spasms that lead to pain in facial, head and neck muscles. You may grind your teeth in your sleep and not even be aware you’re doing it.
  • Clenching or constant chewing: This can also cause the same sort of repetitive stress injury to your TMJ as teeth grinding.
  • Arthritis: The TMJ is a joint just like any other. As such, it’s vulnerable to degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Injury: You may have suffered trauma to the face or jaw, which can damage your TMJ.
  • Orthodontic problems: TMJ disorder can also be caused by a misalignment of the jaw or other muscles supporting the TMJ, which can put excessive stress on the joint.5


How can headache, neck and shoulder pain be relieved?

The first step in treating or preventing any headache or pain in your neck and shoulders is confirming the cause. To do that, you may want to seek the advice of a healthcare professional. Most of the problems we’ve identified above can be diagnosed by your doctor, but you may also choose to talk to your dentist if you think you may be suffering from TMJ disorder.

  • If your problem is poor workplace posture, making some ergonomic changes may help. Try adjusting your chair and/or monitor placement to ensure you’re sitting upright and not slouching or hunching over the keyboard. Also consider putting in place a timer or other system to make sure you get up and take a regular break. It will give your body and your mind a break from the strain.6
  • If you suspect tension or stress is to blame for your headaches and tense neck and shoulders, then stress relief is the place to start. You should consider all the usual suspects: meditation, exercise (particularly gentle activity such as Tai Chi or yoga) and a healthy diet.7
  • If TMJ syndrome or disorder is to blame for your head and neck pain, your plan will depend on what specifically caused the damage to your joint. More extreme cases may require orthodontics or even surgery. More commonly, though, you may be treated for bruxism. This can be with either behavioral techniques (like specific jaw exercises) or with a mouth guard you wear at night to prevent teeth grinding.8

Whatever the cause of your headaches, neck and shoulder pain, you may find short-term relief from over-the-counter remedies, available from Excedrin. They can help to ease your pain while you figure out the cause of your pain and take the necessary measures to prevent it in future.

If, however, your pain gets worse, or you develop additional symptoms such as chest pain, numbness, weakness, dizziness or fever, seek urgent medical attention.


  1. The 7 faces of neck pain. Harvard Health. Accessed 17/02/2020.
  2. Tension Headache. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 4/1/2020.
  3. Temporomandibular Disorders and Headache. University of Rochester Medical Center. Accessed 17/02/20.
  4. TMJ Disorders. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 17/02/2020.
  5. TMJ Disorders. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 17/02/2020.
  6. Sitting at Your Desk Doesn’t Have To Be a Pain in the Neck. Mayo Clinic. Accessed 5/1/2020.
  7. Headache Management: Relaxation and Other Alternative Approaches. Accessed 17/02/2020.
  8. Treatment – Teeth grinding (bruxism). NHS. Accessed 17/02/2020.

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