Can a Herniated Disc Cause Headaches?

Herniated discWhile most people wouldn’t automatically think that a herniated disc in the spine could cause headaches, it is important to remember that the spine and the brain comprise the body’s central nervous system (CNS), which regulates sensory and pain signals throughout the body.

Any type of anatomical abnormality in the spine has the potential to affect any of the 31 pairs of nerve roots that branch off the spinal cord. If this occurs, pain signals can be sent along the entire path of the affected nerve, including the nerve branches that extend from that nerve root to wherever it leads in the body. Pain that is felt in the extremities due to a damaged or compressed nerve root in the spine is called referred pain.

A herniated disc in the cervical (upper) region of the spine can cause headaches. The cervical spine begins at the base of the skull and contains seven vertebrae. All of these vertebrae except for the first two (the atlas and the axis) are separated by spongy intervertebral discs. Over time, these discs can degenerate due to:

  • Age
  • Injury
  • Repetitive stress
  • Smoking
  • Arthritis

If a herniated disc develops and the extruded disc material compresses a nearby cervical nerve root, neck pain may occur, in addition to pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness in the shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, and possibly the head. While headaches may occur as a result of neural compression, tension headaches can also occur if the herniated disc is causing the muscles and ligaments of the neck to be tense, sore, or inflamed.

Be sure to tell your doctor if you are experiencing neck pain and headaches that may be related to a herniated cervical disc. Certain treatments for a herniated disc, such as pain medication or hot compresses, may help to alleviate the neck pain and headaches as well as the neck discomfort that you are experiencing. If your herniated disc symptoms seem to dissipate after a few weeks of treatment, but the headaches persist, schedule a consultation with your doctor so that he or she can investigate whether a more serious problem may be present.

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