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5 Tips to Ease Stiff Neck Headaches

Medically reviewed by Nicole Aliling, MD · Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 21, 2021

5 Tips to Ease Stiff Neck Headaches

Stiff neck headache is not an actual diagnosis; it’s a term we use to describe that the headache we experience due toa stiff neck.

To clearly understand their connection, let’s first discuss stiff neck and headaches separately.

Stiff neck

A stiff neck manifests as a pain in the neck that makes turning the head in another direction difficult. This pain typically occurs because one of the muscles is tensed or strained.

Many things can result in a stiff neck; common reasons include:

  • The head “locking” in an uncomfortable position during sleep
  • A pinched nerve
  • Assuming a bad posture for a long time
  • An injury, like whiplash from a vehicular accident or sprain or strain from falling
  • A medical condition, such as arthritis

stiff neck headache


Headaches are a common complaint, and contrary to popular belief, they don’t indicate that your brain is hurting. In most cases, headaches happen because there are issues with the nerves, blood vessels, or muscles in the head, face, or neck.

Please note that it’s often hard to identify the exact cause of a headache attack, and some people experience them more frequently than others.

But one type of headache, called tension headache, may occur when the muscles in the neck become tensed or contracted – such as when you have a stiff neck.

Tips to soothe a stiff neck headache

Now that we know how a stiff neck can trigger a headache attack, let’s talk about the steps that may help you feel better.

Apply a cold and warm compress

The first step to manage a stiff neck headache is to address the stiff neck first.

In the first 48 to 72 hours after the onset of your neck pain, you can use a cold compress on the affected area. After that, focus on using heat. You can take a warm shower or use a heating pad.

Whether you use a cold or hot compress, be sure to protect your skin. Take breaks in between applications and don’t go to sleep with the compress still on your neck.

Stretch and move your muscles

Moving and stretching your muscles will help loosen the tension and relieve a stiff neck headache. However, avoid jerking or sudden movements that cause pain.

Gently turn your head from side to side, up and down. Other kinds of stretches that help loosen tense neck muscles include:

  • Rolling your shoulders backward and down
  • Squeezing your shoulder blades
  • Touching your ear to your shoulder
  • Of course, gently massaging the affected area also helps, but don’t overdo it.

    Take over-the-counter medicines for pain

    You can also talk to your doctor about taking OTC medicines for pain. But, remember: don’t take a separate pain reliever for your headache and stiff neck.

    Additionally, taking certain pain killers three days a week can result in rebound headaches. If you need to frequently take meds for pain, strongly consider setting an appointment with your doctor.

    Avoid stress and fatigue

    Stress and fatigue may worsen your stiff neck headache; furthermore, they make you more vulnerable to other health problems.

    For this reason, don’t forget the basics of not skipping meals, getting adequate rest, and having quality sleep.

    Be mindful of your sleeping position

    True, you may not be able to monitor your position while you’re asleep, but you can take measures before. For instance, avoid sleeping on your tummy as doing so forces you to turn your head awkwardly to one direction or another.

    Now, if you’ve been having stiff neck headaches repeatedly, consider investing in a firm mattress and talk to your doctor about using a special neck pillow.

    Key Takeaways

    A stiff neck headache is not a type of headache. It’s a term we use to note that we’re having headaches due to our neck pain. In most cases, home remedies are enough to soothe both the stiff neck and the headache. However, if you repeatedly experience both, you should prioritize consulting a physician for appropriate diagnosis and intervention. Remember that sometimes, a stiff neck and headache occur due to an underlying condition.

    Learn more about Headaches and Migraines here. 


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Nicole Aliling, MD

    Neurology · Centre Médicale Internationale

    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 21, 2021

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