The Neck & Migraine Connection Explained

The Brainstem: Where the Neck and Migraines Converge

The first sign hits. Maybe it's nerve pain, an aura or the way fluorescent lights seem to pierce. When you announce you need to take the day off, it seems co-workers give you the same look, as if to say, I've worked with a headache. Take an aspirin. What's the big deal? 

But if you, like more than 37 million Americans, suffer from migraines, you know what will happen if you do not take your medication and lie quietly in darkness. If you have migraines, then you understand the debilitating pain, nausea and sensitivity. You struggle to avoid triggers, discover effective treatments and find accurate information. 

Finally, in the relationship between the neck and migraines, we have answers. Neck-related migraines haunt office environments, and this correlation can be explained with one word: posture. That's right. Sitting up straight can bring relief. Depending on the specific type of migraine you experience, practicing good posture might stop episodes altogether. 

Although migraines aren't entirely understood, they are thought to occur when the trigeminal nerve (near the center of the brain) releases chemicals which irritate blood vessels at the brain's surface, causing them to painfully swell. 

This nerve connects to the brainstem, the posterior portion of the brain which seamlessly transitions into a rope of nervous tissue. The brainstem passes through the foramen magnum (an opening in the base of the skull) into the neck, where it officially becomes the spinal cord and runs the length of the back to the sacrum, supported by bones called vertebrae. 

The spine has three distinct sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back) and lumbar (lower back). With proper posture, the spine features a natural curvature. When poor posture, a medical condition or an injury distorts the spine's curvature, the vertebrae place pressure on the spinal cord, causing nerve pain and muscle tension. 

Forward Head Position (FHP), Tech Neck & Text Neck

Working a desk job, using a computer, texting and reading electronic devices aren't dangerous activities. They do, however, promote poor posture, specifically FHP (also called text neck and tech neck). Characterized by the protruding of the head beyond the shoulders, FHP places tension on the brainstem, causing neck pain and triggering migraines. 

You Love Your Job. So, What Can You Do?

Leaving your desk job or swearing off your smart phone aren't realistic solutions, but you can improve your posture during these activities. 

  • Take walking breaks every 20 minutes.
  • Work standing or sitting at an adjustable desk.
  • Do posture exercises.
  • Try a posture reminder device.
  • Strengthen core muscles.
  • Stretch to release tension.

Practicing good posture and strengthening the muscle groups that support natural spine curvature will relieve the stress from your neck, improve your confidence and prevent neck-related migraines. Whether you suffer a migraine every once in a while or have several headache days per month, migraines force you to miss out on life. If a trip to the water cooler a few times an hour means the difference between an evening with your loved ones or an evening sick in bed, then we say drink up!