Wrap your head around Cervicogenic Headaches

Written by Chris Wiid on 12 June 2024

From feeling like your head is about to explode to the inability to complete simple tasks and increased irritability, headaches are a pain condition that affect everyone in different ways. In fact, headaches have been found to be one of the top 10 causes of disability globally (1). Along with the variable symptoms, the types of headaches and causes of headaches are different person to person. The topic of this post is to explore a common type of headache, the cervicogenic headache, which affects many people and is commonly misdiagnosed.

What is a cervicogenic headache?

The cervicogenic headache (CH) is a painful condition that arises from stiffness and pain in the neck. CH are a type of referred pain meaning that the pain felt in the side or back of the head is being caused by stimulus of the pain receptors in the upper portion of the neck and spine. The nerves carrying this pain message to the brain all converge and relay this pain to the brain. The brain then makes an error and sends the feeling of pain to the head instead of the neck. This is why people who suffer from some headaches may experience more pain in their head when they push on areas in their neck as the feeling of pain is being incorrectly distributed to the head rather than the actual structures causing the painful stimulus in the neck.

Woman holding her neck pain area

CH are more common in the people over the age of 30 and subjective studies have found the mean age of those experiencing this type of headache are around 33 years old (2). CH commonly have a gradual onset pattern with pain intensity only increasing when the provocative stimulus is maintained. This means that it is important that the cause of the headache is addressed in order to relieve symptoms and get you back to your pain-free self. A CH can also arise whilst participating in a sport or physical activity but again occurs as a result of poor positioning or sustained awkward positions. For example, a cyclist with a poor bike set-up in which their saddle is too low and handlebar stem is too long can result in the cyclist experiencing neck stiffness/pain and therefore possibly also headaches. The headaches aren’t necessarily related to the cyclist’s high load of exertion but more to do with their poor positioning.

Common signs and symptoms

Some common symptoms of a CH include:

  • Unilateral pain (pain experienced on one side of the head)
  • Pain experienced on the back of the skull
  • Pain arising from the neck or shoulder
  • Moderate pain, not excruciating
  • Pain triggered by neck, shoulder or arm movements or a sustained awkward position

Other signs:

  • Reduced range of motion in the neck
  • Increased headache pain when pressing on the neck or back of the head

Red Flags

Although most headaches are benign and don’t require intense medical attention, it is also important to understand some of the signs and symptoms that are considered ‘red flags’ and may mean you require medical attention:

  • Headaches that wake you up at night
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Weakness or numbness of limbs
  • Pain or symptoms in the ear, sinus or teeth/jaw
  • Headaches increasing in pain over several days

Symptom relievers and long term suggestions

It is important to understand the background behind a CH in order to understand how to help relieve pain. A CH is commonly managed with the help of a physiotherapist. A physiotherapist can provide hands-on treatment to help reduce the symptoms and help reduce stiffness felt at the neck. Along with hands-on treatment, a physiotherapist can provide stretches, strengthening exercises, and education regarding posture and desk ergonomics to make your set up ‘neck friendly’, aiding in the reduction of the number and intensity of future headaches.

Two stretches that may help to reduce pain and tightness in the neck are the ‘Arm-pit stretch’ and the ‘ear to shoulder stretch’. Along with stretches, incorporating an easy strengthening exercise such as the ‘chin tuck’ can provide your neck with extra support and strength to reduce the likelihood of future CHs.

In summary, headaches are horrible, and the pain may feel unconquerable. Although, after exploring the cause of one of the common types of headaches affecting Australians today, you can see that addressing the root cause of a cervicogenic headache can help to reduce the number and intensity of future headaches.

If you're grappling with neck pain or persistent headaches, don't hesitate to schedule a consultation with the welcoming professionals at Sportstec Clinic. Our highly skilled physiotherapists are here to attentively address your concerns and devise a tailored treatment plan to alleviate your discomfort. Let our team guide you towards relief and help you wrap your head around headaches.

In the unlikely event that you decide to complete any of the exercises described in this post and feel an increase in pain, dizziness, nausea or any of the other red flags listed above, cease exercises and seek attention from your physiotherapist or GP. If symptoms become severe, consider visiting the Emergency Department.

  1. Steiner, T. J., Birbeck, G. L., Jensen, R. H., Katsarava, Z., Stovner, L. J., & Martelletti, P. (2015). Headache disorders are third cause of disability worldwide. The journal of headache and pain16, 58. https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-015-0544-2
  2. Antonaci, F., & Sjaastad, O. (2011). Cervicogenic headache: a real headache. Current neurology and neuroscience reports11(2), 149–155. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11910-010-0164-9
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