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Cervicogenic Headaches: Causes, 15 Symptoms, Treatment and important Exercises

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By Dr. Shivani Kamra

cervicogenic headache
Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

What is Cervicogenic Headache ?

A cervicogenic headache is a type of headache that originates from the neck or cervical spine. It is often misdiagnosed as a migraine or tension headache, as the symptoms can be similar. However, understanding the causes, recognizing the symptoms, and seeking appropriate treatment is crucial for effective management of this condition.

There are several potential reasons of cervicogenic headaches. One common cause is poor posture, which can lead to muscle imbalances and tension in the neck and upper back. This tension can then trigger headaches. Other causes may include trauma, such as whiplash from a car accident, or degenerative conditions like arthritis in the cervical spine.

The symptoms can vary from person to person, but they often include pain that starts in the neck and radiates to the head. The pain is typically on one side of the head and may be accompanied by neck stiffness or limited range of motion. Some individuals may also experience pain in the shoulder or arm on the same side as the headache.

When it comes to treatment, a multidisciplinary approach is often recommended. It may include physical therapy to address any underlying musculoskeletal issues, such as muscle imbalances or postural problems. Therapeutic exercises and stretches can help improve neck strength and flexibility, reducing the frequency and intensity of headaches.

In addition to physical therapy, other treatment options may include medication to manage pain and inflammation, as well as lifestyle modifications. These modifications may involve making changes to ergonomics at work or home, practising stress management techniques, and incorporating regular exercise into a daily routine.

In some cases, more invasive interventions may be necessary. For example, if conservative treatments are not effective, a healthcare provider may recommend injections, such as nerve blocks or trigger point injections, to provide temporary relief. In rare cases, surgery may be considered if there is a structural issue in the cervical spine contributing to the headaches.

It is important for individuals having this type of headache, to seek a proper diagnosis from a healthcare professional. A professional will ensure that the appropriate treatment plan can be implemented to manage the condition and improve quality of life effectively. With the right approach, individuals can find relief from this and regain control over their daily activities.

Cervicogenic Headache Causes

Problems in the neck or cervical spine cause cervicogenic headaches. These problems can include:

  • Neck injuries or trauma: Any injury or trauma to the neck, such as a car accident, fall, or sports injury, can lead to such headache . The impact or force on the neck can cause damage to the structures in the cervical spine, resulting in pain that radiates to the head.
  • Whiplash: Whiplash is a common reason of for such headache. It occurs when the head is forcefully jerked backwards and then forward, causing the neck to hyperextend and flex rapidly. This sudden movement can strain the neck muscles, ligaments, and joints, leading to headache symptoms.
  • Arthritis or degenerative changes in the neck: As we age, the cervical spine can undergo degenerative changes, such as osteoarthritis or cervical spondylosis. These conditions can cause the discs and joints in the neck to deteriorate, leading to inflammation, nerve compression.
  • Herniated or bulging discs: A herniated or bulging disc in the cervical spine can put pressure on the surrounding nerves, causing pain that radiates to the head. It can occur due to age-related degeneration or as a result of trauma to the neck.
  • Poor posture: Maintaining poor posture for extended periods, such as slouching or hunching over a desk, can strain the muscles and ligaments in the neck. Over time, this can lead to muscle imbalances, tension.
  • Muscle imbalances or tension: Imbalances in the muscles of the neck, such as tightness or weakness in certain muscle groups can also cause this. Poor posture, repetitive movements, or muscle overuse can cause these imbalances.

When these structures are affected, they can irritate or compress the nerves and blood vessels that supply the head and face, leading to cervicogenic pain. The exact mechanisms behind that is not fully understood, but it is believed that the pain signals from the neck are referred to the head, resulting in headache symptoms. Additionally, the inflammation and irritation in the neck can trigger a cascade of events that contribute to headache development.

Cervicogenic Headache Symptoms

The symptoms of cervicogenic headaches can vary from person to person, but common signs include:

  • Headache that starts in the neck or base of the skull and radiates to the forehead, temple, or behind the eyes
  • Pain on one side of the head or face
  • Neck pain or stiffness
  • Restricted neck movement
  • Tenderness in the neck or shoulder muscles
  • Light sensitivity or blurred vision
  • Nausea or dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Feeling fatigued
  • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
  • Increased sensitivity to noise or sound
  • Changes in appetite or food cravings
  • Feeling irritable or moody
  • Experiencing muscle weakness or numbness in the neck or upper extremities

It is important to note that cervicogenic pain are not typically accompanied by typical migraine symptoms such as aura, vomiting, or throbbing pain. However, they can still be debilitating and significantly impact daily functioning and quality of life. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.

Treatment of Cervicogenic Headache

Effective treatment for cervicogenic headaches focuses on addressing the underlying causes and relieving pain. Here are some common treatment options:

  1. Physical therapy and exercise

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the management of cervicogenic headaches. A physical therapist can help identify and correct any postural or musculoskeletal imbalances that may be contributing to the condition. They may also recommend specific exercises to improve neck strength and flexibility.

Physical therapy sessions typically involve a combination of manual therapy techniques, such as soft tissue mobilization and joint mobilization, along with exercises designed to target the specific muscles and structures involved in cervical pain. These exercises may include stretching, strengthening, and postural retraining.

By addressing the underlying causes of cervicogenic headaches and improving posture and muscle imbalances, physical therapy can help reduce pain and improve overall function.

2. Medications

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can provide temporary relief for mild headache. In more severe cases, prescription medications such as muscle relaxants or tricyclic antidepressants may be prescribed to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

It’s important to note that medications should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and should not be relied upon as the sole treatment for cervicogenic headaches. They can be helpful in managing symptoms but do not address the underlying causes of the condition.

3. Trigger Point Injections

Trigger point injections involve injecting a local anaesthetic or corticosteroid into specific trigger points in the neck and shoulder muscles. That helps relieve muscle tension and reduce pain.

Trigger points are areas of tightness or knots in the muscles that can refer pain to other areas of the body, including the head. By injecting medication directly into these trigger points, healthcare professionals can help relax the muscles and alleviate pain.

4. Nerve blocks

In some cases, nerve blocks may be recommended to block the pain signals from the affected nerves temporarily. This procedure involves injecting a local anaesthetic or steroid around the nerves that are causing the headache.

Nerve blocks can provide temporary relief from headache by numbing the affected nerves and interrupting the pain signals. It is especially beneficial for individuals who have not found relief from other treatment options.

5. Lifestyle modifications

Making certain lifestyle modifications can also help manage cervicogenic headaches. These may include:

  • Improving posture
  • Using ergonomic workstations and chairs
  • Taking regular breaks from prolonged sitting or computer use
  • Practising stress management techniques
  • Engaging in regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight

By making these lifestyle modifications, individuals can reduce the strain on their neck and shoulder muscles, improve blood flow, and decrease the frequency and intensity of headaches.

6. Alternative therapy

Some individuals find relief from cervicogenic headaches through alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, or massage therapy. These therapies can help reduce muscle tension, improve blood flow, and promote relaxation.

Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of energy and promote healing. Chiropractic adjustments focus on realigning the spine and improving joint function, which can alleviate tension and reduce headache symptoms. Massage therapy can help relax muscles, improve circulation, and reduce pain and stress in the neck and shoulder region.

The Importance of Cervicogenic Headache Exercises

While medications can provide temporary relief, incorporating cervicogenic headache exercises into your routine can help manage the condition in the long term.

cervicogenic headache

Stretching and Strengthening Exercises

Stretching exercises can help alleviate tension in the neck and upper back, reducing the frequency and intensity of headache. These exercises may include gentle neck stretches, shoulder rolls, and upper back stretches. Strengthening exercises, on the other hand, focus on improving the stability and flexibility of the neck and upper back muscles. These exercises may involve resistance bands or light weights to target specific muscle groups.

Posture Correction

Poor posture is a common cause of cervicogenic headaches. Slouching or sitting in a hunched position for long periods can strain the neck and upper back muscles, leading to pain and headaches. Incorporating exercises that promote good posture, such as shoulder blade squeezes and chin tucks, can help alleviate tension and reduce the occurrence of headaches.

Relaxation Techniques

Stress and tension can exacerbate cervicogenic headaches. Learning relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga, can help reduce stress levels and promote overall relaxation. These techniques can also help release tension in the neck and upper back muscles.

Remember, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any exercise program, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition. They can guide you to the best exercises for your specific needs and ensure that you are performing them correctly to avoid any further injury or discomfort.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing frequent or severe headaches that are interfering with your daily activities, it is important to consult a healthcare professional. They can evaluate your symptoms, perform a physical examination, and recommend appropriate treatment options.

Additionally, seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following:

  • Sudden onset of the worst headache of your life
  • Headache accompanied by fever, stiff neck, or rash
  • Headache after a head injury
  • Changes in vision, speech, or consciousness

These symptoms may indicate a more serious underlying condition that requires immediate medical attention.

It is also important to see a doctor if your headaches are progressively getting worse over time or if they are accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or weakness. These could be signs of a more complex neurological issue that needs to be addressed by a medical professional.

Furthermore, suppose you have a history of migraines or have been diagnosed with a specific type of headache disorder. In that case, it is advisable to consult with a doctor regularly to manage your condition effectively. They can help you develop a personalized treatment plan and provide guidance on lifestyle modifications or preventive measures.

Remember, self-diagnosis and self-medication are not recommended when it comes to headaches. Only a qualified healthcare professional can accurately diagnose the underlying cause of your symptoms and provide appropriate medical advice.

Frequntly asked questions (FAQ’s)

What does a cervicogenic headache feel like?

Its a chronic headache which starts from neck and it feels like a dull ache that stays for hours or days.

How do you fix a cervicogenic headache?

By following few stretching exercises and medications under professionals.

What is the difference between a migraine and a cervical headache?

Cervical headache is originated from neck or base of the skull. It is caused by the problem in nerve , bone or neck muscles. On other hand Migrane is originated from brain and it causes dizziness , nausea and sensitivity to light and noise.

What is the red flag for cervicogenic headaches?

Red flag for this is sudden onset of severe headache and headache worsen overtime.

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