What is a cervicogenic headache?
Cervicogenic headaches are secondary headaches. Secondary headaches are those caused by an underlying condition, such as neck injuries, infections, or severe high blood pressure. This sets them apart from primary headaches, such as migraines and cluster headaches.
The pain caused by a cervicogenic headache begins in the neck and the back of the head and radiates towards the front of the head. People may confuse cervicogenic headaches with migraines and tension headaches, both of which can cause neck pain.
In this article, we discuss some symptoms, causes, and treatments for cervicogenic headaches.
A cervicogenic headache can cause pain and stiffness in the neck.
Typically, people who have cervicogenic headaches experience a headache accompanied by neck pain and stiffness. Certain neck movements can provoke cervicogenic headaches.
In most cases, cervicogenic headaches develop on one side of the head, starting from the back of the head and neck and radiating toward the front.
Some other symptoms of a cervicogenic headache include:
- a reduced range of motion in the neck
- pain on one side of the face or head
- pain and stiffness of the neck
- pain around the eyes
- pain in the neck, shoulder, or arm on one side
- head pain that is triggered by certain neck movements or positions
- sensitivity to light and noise
- blurred vision
What causes a cervicogenic headache?
Cervicogenic headaches result from structural problems in the neck and are often due to problems with vertebrae at the top of the spine, called the cervical vertebrae, and specifically the C2-3 vertebra.
Some people develop cervicogenic headaches because they work in jobs that involve them straining their necks. These jobs include hair stylists, manual laborers, and drivers.
People can also develop cervicogenic headaches after an injury to the neck. This is better known as whiplash.
Some medical conditions that can cause cervicogenic headaches include:
Treatments for cervicogenic headaches focus on removing the cause of the pain. Treatments vary depending on the person and the severity of their symptoms.
Some treatments for cervicogenic headaches include:
A range of medications can help treat cervicogenic headaches.
A healthcare provider may recommend prescription or over-the-counter pain medications to relieve painful or uncomfortable symptoms. Medications that treat cervicogenic headaches include:
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen
- muscle relaxers
- antiseizure medications
Physical therapy is an effective treatment for cervicogenic headaches since a structural problem in the neck usually causes them.
People can work with a physical therapist to develop specialized treatment programs. At the first appointment, a physical therapist will identify the source of the pain. From there, they may stimulate the soft tissue and move the joints around to relieve painful symptoms.
Transcutaneuos electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS units use small electrodes placed on the skin to send small electrical signals to stimulate nerves near the source of pain. TENS may help some people with a cervicogenic headache, but the relief does not usually last very long.
People with chronic headaches may benefit from radiofrequency ablation. Also called radiofrequency neurolysis, this procedure involves using radio waves to heat the tip of a needle. A doctor will then apply the needle to the nerve that is causing the pain. The heat from the needle effectively deadens the nerve, interrupting the nerve's ability to send pain signals to the brain.
A doctor can inject pain-numbing medicine into nerves and joints in the head and neck. These often provide pain relief and can help determine the source of the pain.
Neuromodulation is a surgery which involves placing electrodes on the back of the head or neck. When connected to a pulse generator via a thin wire, these electrodes stimulate the occipital nerve, which runs from the top of the spinal cord to the head. This therapy may help people with cervicogenic headaches when other treatments have not worked.
People can also try a form of physical therapy called sustained natural apophyseal glide (SNAG). SNAG involves using a towel to manipulate the areas of the neck that are causing painful symptoms. A physical therapist can teach a person how to do SNAG at home.
People may also find that specific exercises and alternative treatments help with pain relief, including headaches. These include:
- deep breathing techniques
- relaxation regimes
If left untreated, a cervicogenic headache can become debilitating. Some people can also experience chronic, or recurring, cervicogenic headaches. If this happens to someone, they should contact their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.
When to see a doctor
If a person experiences confusion and vision loss alongside a headache, they should contact a medical professional.
People should contact their healthcare providers if they experience a headache along with:
- severe pain
- nausea or vomiting
- trouble speaking
- vision loss
- difficulty walking
- muscle weakness
A cervicogenic headache is a type of secondary headache that is caused by problems with the neck. Causes of a cervicogenic headache include malformations of the cervical vertebrae, injuries to the neck, inflammation, and other medical conditions.
If left untreated, a cervicogenic headache can worsen and become debilitating. People can experience chronic, or recurrent, headaches that do not respond to medication.
People who have chronic cervicogenic headaches can work with their healthcare provider to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that will address their symptoms.
People can relieve their symptoms at home, or through a combination of therapeutic, surgical, and medicinal methods.