Headaches and Neck Pain? – How Your Physical Therapist Can Help!

What is a cervicogenic headache?

A cervicogenic headache is just another name for a headache that originates from somewhere in the neck (aka 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 you neck.

The neck is made up of vertebrae that form joints which 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 and cause pain that is interpreted as a headache. A head/neck injury in the recent past, such as a whiplash injury or 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, sitting at a computer)
  • Tenderness at the base of the head or upper neck when pressing on it firmly
  • Arm 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, decreased ability to concentrate

Possible Causes: 2,3

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

What You Can Expect From Your PT: 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 muscles surrounding and supporting the neck
  • Patient education about your condition, what your PT can do to help, and things you as the patient can do at home to help improve

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

**If you experience any of the following symptoms, it is important to call 911 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. Childs JD, Cleland JA, Elliott JM, Teyhen DS. Neck pain clinical guidelines. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2008; 9(38): A1-34.
  2. Page P. Cervicogenic headaches: an evidence-led approach to clinical management. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2011; 6(3): 254-266.
  3. Headache (Cervicogenic). http://www.physioadvisor.com.au/9273650/cervicogenic-headache-neck-headache-physioadvi.htm. Accessed: March 8, 2016.