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Very often the pain you feel as a headache is actually referred pain from your neck. Referred pain is pain that develops in one part of the body but is felt in another. A common example of referred pain is the arm pain many people feel before or during a heart attack.

Pain that originates in your neck can have a number of causes.

Stress is the top culprit, causing muscles and ligaments in the neck to tighten. When this happens, your vertebrae can be thrown out of alignment, and nerve fibers and blood vessels that are connected with those in your head may become inflamed. Ouch!

Poor posture is another cause of neck and head pain. Although your head and spine have a natural alignment that provides maximum support, many people have a tendency to lean forward, especially when looking at a computer or television screen, driving, or compensating for the heft of a backpack. When you lean forward, the weight of your head—somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds—strains muscles of the back of your neck and can pull your spine out of alignment.

Arthritis in your neck (the cervical section of your spine) causes headaches, neck and back pain. This is due to degeneration of the vertebrae, which is common when we age.

Signs that your headache originates in your neck are:

  • You have regular headaches of varying length and degrees of pain, with no consistent cyclical pattern.
  • Pain is felt on one side of your head.
  • Your headache is preceded by pain in the neck or shoulders.
  • You have a history of neck injury, such as whiplash.