There are numerous different types of headaches, ranging from the mild ones we all get from time to time to painful, debilitating conditions that can seriously impact the activities in your life.
Cervicogenic headaches are a lesser-known type of headache. Here’s what you need to know about them.
What are cervicogenic headaches?
A cervicogenic headache is a headache that originates in your cervical spine (your neck).
It’s known as a secondary headache since the headache is actually a symptom of a different condition, in this case a disorder of the bones, discs or soft tissue in your neck. Think of it as an alarm going off to say ‘Hey, something isn’t working quite right’. A cervicogenic headache may last for hours, days and even weeks without relief if the underlying problem is not addressed.
What are the symptoms of cervicogenic headaches?
Symptoms of a cervicogenic headache include:
- Throbbing pain on only one side of your head or face
- A stiff neck
- Pain around your eyes
- Pain when you cough or sneeze
- Pain that worsens with certain movements.
Some people also experience additional symptoms similar to migraines, such as sensitivity to light or noise, blurry vision or stomach upset.
Why do cervicogenic headaches happen?
Your neck and the back of your head contain many pain-sensitive or pain-generating regions, including joints, ligaments, nerve roots, arteries and lining of your cervical spine.
Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, infections, fractures, tumours or even age-related wear-and-tear can trigger cervicogenic headaches. Other causes include a prolapsed disc, whiplash, falls or a sports injury.
One of the key things to consider when examining the causes of cervicogenic headaches is the position of your back and neck for most of the day and night. Your posture, movement and work setup can all increase your chances of developing cervicogenic headaches. For example, an office setup that causes you to slump down in your chair or crane your neck to look at a monitor can lead to cervicogenic headaches due to the cervical and thoracic spine being in poor placement and straining your muscles. If you work in an office, you’re likely to spend at least 8 hours of your day there – so it is worth investing in an appropriate office setup, such as a monitor stand, ergonomic chair, and a sit/stand desk.
Where else do you tend to spend 8 hours of your day? That’s right, in your bed. If you have an old, unsupportive mattress that slumps in the middle, or a pillow that is adjusted to the wrong height or firmness for your needs, you might find that you wake up each morning with a sore neck – and soon after, a sore head too.
A chiropractor can advise on the best sleeping arrangements for you, as choices such as pillow type and mattress often depend on your body type and the position you sleep in – such as side sleeper or back sleeper. Do your research and don’t be afraid to be picky, because your neck and back will be in those positions for 8 hours a day – and a poor sleeping setup can lead to cervicogenic headaches.
What are the treatment options for cervicogenic headaches?
Cervicogenic headaches can be tricky to diagnose and manage and do tend to recur.
Treatment often involves a personally tailored mix of:
- Physiotherapy, including spine manipulation or mobilisation alongside exercises
- Steroid injections to your neck to manage disc or spine degeneration
- Nerve blocks to decrease pain
- Medications to relax muscles
- Psychological therapy to help manage the stress of living with a chronic condition
Which exercises help with cervicogenic headaches?
Your physiotherapist may recommend a few different exercises to reduce cervicogenic headaches by strengthening your deep neck flexors and upper back muscles.
Improving your posture can also help. Your physiotherapist can assess your patterns of standing and moving and provide advice to improve your posture. That may also include improving your office setup for better ergonomics and recommending specific products, such as a posture corrector.
Your neck is a complex and delicate structure. Please see a professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalised treatment recommendations – don’t just start doing a few exercises at home or you risk worsening your symptoms.
Which professionals help with cervicogenic headaches?
Cervicogenic headaches often require input from a few different healthcare professionals, such as your:
It’s important to note that if you’re experiencing unusual headaches, especially if they are accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness or slurred speech, you should contact an emergency health service or see your GP immediately. Once any more serious causes are ruled out, they can refer you to a physiotherapist or chiropractor for ongoing treatment.
How can The Brisbane Spine Clinic help?
We understand that cervicogenic headaches can disrupt your life and we want to help you get back on track.
Our skilled chiropractors and physiotherapists can carefully assess your symptoms and range of movement, take a detailed history, and truly get an understanding of the potential causes of your cervicogenic headaches. Because the possible causes of cervicogenic headaches are so varied, it’s important to go to a clinic that will take the time to understand your individual situation and needs. Once the root cause has been identified, your practitioner will develop a personalised treatment plan, provide hands-on therapy and teach you how to complete home-based exercises designed to ease your symptoms.
Book an appointment online.
All information is general in nature