If you’ve ever felt a headache starting from the back of your neck and radiating towards the front, you have probably experienced a cervicogenic headache. Unlike migraines or tension-type headaches, a cervicogenic headache doesn’t come from the head itself. Instead, it’s usually an indication you may have neck issues, especially around the cervical spine.
In this article, we’ll look at what a cervicogenic headache is, how to identify one, and some treatment options to provide you with relief.
What is a cervicogenic headache?
Commonly known as CGH, a cervicogenic headache begins as a pain in the back of the neck and radiates forward. Usually, the pain affects the forehead, around the eyes and your temple. Typically, these types of headaches indicate a neck injury or other issue in the cervical spine. Due to the large number of nerves in the upper cervical spine, it isn’t uncommon to experience pain.
When the trigeminocervical nucleus in your upper cervical spine experiences pain sensations, the pain is sent through nerve fibres and causes feelings of pain in other parts of the head.
Identifying cervicogenic headache symptoms
A cervicogenic headache can come on quite unexpectedly, or a dull pain can increase over time. While this makes it difficult to identify, the area of pain is quite distinct. Some common signs that you’re experiencing a cervicogenic headache include:
- Pain that starts at the neck and moves towards the front of the head.
- Tenderness in the neck region.
- Reduced neck movement or stiffness.
- Pain that intensifies with neck movement or a sustained neck posture.
- Blurred vision, usually in one eye.
- Pain in the shoulders, back or arms.
It’s important to note that cervicogenic headaches can be quite similar to other headache types, so getting a correct diagnosis is crucial to effective treatment. Ultimately, the clear giveaway is stiffness or pain in the neck, but you also need to be aware that CGH symptoms are often confined to one side. The pain typically begins at a point in the neck or spine and moves around to one side of the head. In some cases, the headache is only located in the temples and behind the eyes, with no real signs of neck stiffness. A physiotherapist, however, is able to locate the cause by some direct palpation and assessment of the areas in the neck itself.
Causes of cervicogenic headaches
Headaches are never pleasant, and in a lot of cases, it’s hard to pinpoint the actual cause. Some headaches pass quickly, while others take some time to ease. CGH is a little different because the pain usually results from an underlying issue in the neck or spine. Some common causes include:
- Whiplash or neck injuries.
- Arthritis or age-related changes in the cervical spine.
- Infections or tumours in the cervical region.
- Compression of nerves in the cervical spine.
The most common cause of CGH is actually two small facet joints found at the back of each spinal level. The upper cervical facet joints (those from C1-C3) are the most commonly injured or jammed up, and usually cause CGH. However, as you can see, this is not the only source of the problem, so it’s important to get a correct diagnosis to treat the underlying issue.
Cervicogenic headache treatment
One of the most common causes of CGH is poor posture and long periods hunched in front of computers, screens and mobile devices. In these cases, there often is not even an initial injury that occurs. Moreso, there is a gradual onset of the headaches with no apparent reason.
Physiotherapy plays a significant role in managing cervicogenic headaches. As we discussed, CGH is typically caused by a neck injury or associated postural issues. Therefore, rather than treating the headache itself, you need to find treatment options for the root cause. The best method for treating musculoskeletal problems such as this is physiotherapy.
Your physiotherapist can diagnose CGH, investigate the underlying cause, and implement a treatment plan. The scope of treatment usually involves a combination of neck exercises, massage, dry needling, and helping you improve your posture. Let’s look at these treatments in more detail.
Cervicogenic headache exercises
Options such as pain medication can temporarily provide relief, but they aren’t a long-term solution. If your CGH comes from a neck issue, gentle exercises are required to strengthen the area concerned. The upper neck region should be exercised regularly, as guided by your physiotherapist. Some neck exercises include:
- Neck tilts: Gently tilt your head towards your shoulder, holding for a few seconds.
- Neck turns: Slowly turn your head from side to side.
- Neck flexion and extension: Move your head forward and backward.
- Scapulo/thoracic stability exercises: Engage your shoulder blades back and down whilst performing arm movements forwards.
- Isometric deep neck flexor strength exercises: Using a strap or towel, tuck your chin in against resistance.
If your exercises are painful, stop and consult your physiotherapist before continuing.
Besides exercises, your physiotherapist may consider a range of manual methods to help relieve stiffness and improve mobility. Some of these methods include:
- Manual therapy: Gentle mobilisation or manipulation of the cervical spine.
- Soft tissue massage: To relieve muscle tension.
- Dry needling: To address trigger points in the muscles.
Every situation is different, so it’s crucial you don’t attempt any treatment without the advice of a qualified professional.
Need physiotherapy services to relieve headaches?
Cervicogenic headaches are incredibly painful for regular sufferers, but there is a solution. The team of experienced physiotherapists at MGS Physio are on hand to help relieve your pain and improve your quality of life. From implementing a tailored exercise plan to massage and dry needling, we have a range of treatment options to help you get more out of life. Contact the team at MGS Physio to make a booking today.