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Cervicogenic Headaches

Cervicogenic headaches originate from the neck area.

What is a Cervicogenic Headache?

Otherwise known as a ‘neck headache,’ cervicogenic headache refers to a headache which originates from the neck. While the pain begins from damage to the bony structures, soft tissues, or nerves of the upper neck, pain often spreads to or is referred to the frontal-temporal areas of the head – i.e. behind the eyes, ears, forehead, or jaw. One of most common types of headaches, especially among people aged 20-60, cervicogenic headaches are similar to the more commonly known migraine or tension-type headaches; as a result, cervicogenic headaches are often misdiagnosed or go unrecognized. Early diagnosis is thus key to reducing the disability associated with this painful condition.

Causes and Risk Factors Of Cervicogenic Headaches

Excessive stress to the neck or spine is the primary cause of a cervicogenic headache. Other causes and risk factors include:

  • Excessive twisting/bending of the neck
  • Sudden movement of the neck
  • Trauma (i.e. whiplash) or previous neck trauma
  • Heavy lifting
  • Spinal disc problems
  • Prolonged sitting (i.e. working at a computer)
  • Prolonged slouching
  • Poor desk setup
  • Fatigue
  • Poor sleeping posture/pillow
  • Stress
  • Sedentary lifestyle

Cervicogenic Headache Symptoms

Typical symptoms of a cervicogenic headache include:

  • Intermittent or steady pain which begins from the neck and extends to between the shoulder blades
  • Pain which is exacerbated by certain neck movements or neck positions
  • Pain which is triggered by pressure applied to the upper part of the neck or back
  • Pain at the back or base of the skull
  • Pain behind the eyebrows/forehead
  • Pain down one or both arms
  • Stiff neck
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea/vomiting/dizziness
  • Difficulty moving

How to Diagnosis a Cervicogenic Headache

According to the Cervicogenic Headache International Study Group, individuals with cervicogenic headache often present with a limited cervical range of motion, an altered neck posture, or pain which is triggered by certain neck positions or movements. In addition, when manually stimulated, certain muscular trigger points will refer pain to the shoulders or head. Cervicogenic headaches are primarily diagnosed by means of a physical exam and careful history taking. Other diagnostic tools may include: X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT scan), and nerve blocks.

Cervicogenic Headache Treatment  

A successful treatment protocol for individuals suffering from cervicogenic headaches requires a multifaceted approach and an individualized treatment plan. Depending on the severity of the injury, this may include one or more of the following treatments:

  • Pharmacologic management of pain (i.e. aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen)
  • Non-pharmacologic procedures, such as spinal manipulations, trigger point injections, nerve blocks
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Meditation
  • Surgical intervention

Cervicogenic Headache Prevention

Fortunately, there are concrete steps and guidelines you can follow to help treat and prevent cervicogenic headaches. These include: eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, learning proper sitting posture, drinking less caffeine, and reducing overall tension/stress.