Headaches and Neck Pain? Here’s How Your Physical Therapist Can Help!

What Is a Cervicogenic Headache?

A cervicogenic headache is another name for a headache that originates from somewhere in the neck (a.k.a. the cervical spine). This is called “referred pain,” which means that you perceive the pain in a region of your body that is different from where the source of the problem actually exists. This occurs because some of the nerves that supply the neck also supply structures in the head. If you are experiencing a headache along with neck pain, then the issue might actually be with your neck.

The neck is made up of vertebrae that form joints that allow for movement in your neck. During certain movements of your neck, the joints, muscles, ligaments, and nerves could be getting stretched, compressed, or irritated beyond their normal tolerance. This can cause pain that is interpreted as a headache. A head/neck injury in the recent past, such as a whiplash injury or a concussion, could also refer pain that is perceived as a headache.

Common Symptoms.1,2,3

If you are experiencing a cervicogenic headache, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Usually one-sided neck pain and a headache that wraps around from the base of the neck, up the back of the head, and into the front of the head
  • Headache that is not constant
  • Headache that is brought on or aggravated by certain neck movements or spending a lot of time in the same position (such as driving or sitting at a computer)
  • Tenderness at the base of the head or upper neck when pressing on it firmly
  • Discomfort in the arm that is on the same side as the head/neck pain
  • May also be associated with light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, ringing in the ears, and decreased ability to concentrate

Possible Causes:2,3

  • Muscle imbalances, weakness, or tightness
  • Poor posture associated with repetitive or prolonged positions at work/home, sleeping, and so on
  • Previous neck or head trauma
  • Stress

What You Can Expect From Your Physical Therapist:1

  • An evaluation that will examine the range of motion, strength, and posture of your neck and other surrounding body regions
  • Hands-on techniques such as stretching, pressing, and positioning to help move your neck to assess mobility
  • Exercises focusing on improving the activation, strength, and endurance of the muscles surrounding and supporting the neck
  • Patient education about your condition, what your PT can do to help, and what you as the patient can do at home to help improve

It is important to remember that every individual’s body is different and that everyone perceives pain differently, so if you think that you might be having cervicogenic headaches but aren’t quite sure, schedule an appointment with your physical therapist to be evaluated!

Please note: If you experience any of the following symptoms, it is important to call 9-1-1 for immediate medical attention, since they may be a RED FLAG for a more serious condition:2

  • Headaches that are progressively getting worse over time
  • Sudden onset of severe headache
  • Headaches associated with high fever, stiff neck, or rash
  • Onset of headache after a head injury
  • Problems with vision or severe dizziness

References:

  1. D. Childs et al., “Neck Pain: Clinical Practice Guidelines Linked to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health from the Orthopedic Section of the American Physical Therapy Association,” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 9, no. 38 (2008): A1–34.
  2. Page, “Cervicogenic Headaches: An Evidence-Led Approach to Clinical Management,” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy 6, no. 3 (2011): 254–266.
  3. “Headache (Cervicogenic),” PhysioAdvisor.com, http://www.physioadvisor.com.au/9273650/cervicogenic-headache-neck-headache-physioadvi.htm (accessed March 8, 2016).