Cervicogenic Headaches

Ever heard of a cervicogenic headache before? No? Well, this is a headache which originates from the neck. It is one of the most common types of headache and although this type of headache can occur at any age, it is more common in people between the ages of 20 and 60. Problems with my neck are the main cause of my headaches.

Cervicogenic headaches are often called secondary headaches because they originate from a primary underlying neck disorder. The good news is that by dealing with your neck problem, your headache can be alleviated.

The upper part of your neck consists of cervical vertebra and this supports the skull, and weight of your head. It is also responsible for movements such as moving your head up and down, turning it side to side and putting your ear to your shoulder. Any dysfunction in the joints of the upper neck can limit the range of motion or fluidity of movement and
can result in nerve irritation. This could include the ligaments, tendons, and muscles that attach to the vertebra or even the discs between each vertebra.

Often a history of neck injury, especially whiplash, is found in people who suffer from these types of headaches; however, damage to the structures of the neck can also be caused without injury. Repetitive movements of the neck or constant poor posture over time, can also cause an issue to these structures. The problem with the neck can then give you a headache as the nerves roots from the upper portion of the neck supply the skin overlying the head, forehead, jaw line, back of the eyes and ears. As a result, pain arising from structures of the upper neck or irritation of the nerves in this region, may refer pain to any of these areas, causing a cervicogenic headache.

Your headache can also come from issues with muscles of your upper, front and back of your neck. These muscles often refer pain to the temples and side of the head.

WHAT CAUSES THESE HEADACHES?

A cervicogenic headache often appears with action that place stress on the upper part of the joints in your neck. This could be due to one specific event such as whiplash or due to repetitive or prolonged activities such as poor posture, lifting or carrying
excessive bending or twisting of the neck, working at a computer or sleeping on your tummy with your head turned to the side. People with Hypermobility Syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type3 (joint hypermobility) and TMJ disorders tend to be affected by neck problems causing cervicogenic headaches. Other factors include:

  • Inappropriate desk setup
  • Poor lifting and carrying techniques
  • Inappropriate pillow or sleeping postures
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • A lifestyle comprising excessive slouching, bending forwards or shoulders forwards activities.

All factors need to be assessed and corrected where possible and can be discussed with you therapist – one of the reason trained Remedial Massage Therapists do a detailed consultation to gain as much information as possible.

Symptoms include:
  • Gradual onset of neck pain and headache during an activity that irritates the neck structures
  • Constant dull ache, normally situated at the back of the head, although sometimes behind the eyes or temple region.
  • Pain is usually on one side, but sometimes can be both sides of the head and face.
  • Pain that’s made worse by neck movement or posture
  • Neck pain, tenderness over the upper neck
  • Stiffness and difficulty turning the neck
  • Pain, pins and needles or numbness may also be felt in the upper back, shoulders, arms or hands, although this is less common.


It is important to know that the joints in your neck may not be sore at rest or with usual
movements; but may be tender to touch or painful/sensitive when properly examined by an Advanced Remedial Massage Therapist.

HOW CAN Massage THERAPY HELP?

Although this type of headache may respond to medication from your Doctor or pharmacist which will hopefully relieve the pain, this may not necessarily treat the causes of your headache. Unless you deal with the origin of the headache such as the neck dysfunction, the headache will return in time. Remedial Massage therapy treatment will focus on the soft tissue and Advanced Remedial Massage therapy can deal with the joint restrictions. It may also involve some exercises to strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight muscles.

At your assessment you therapist may find an increased tightness and trigger points (hyperirritable spots in the skeletal muscle) in neck and upper back/shoulder muscles.
Weakness in the deep muscles in the front of your neck. Pain localised in the neck and base of the skull, which can spread to other areas in the head, such as the forehead and temples. There may be a resistance to, limited neck movements. Changes in neck muscle tone, like muscle spasm and tenderness of neck musculature

Treatment includes:
  • Mobilisations of the neck and upper back
  • Myofascial release to release tight structures and muscles in spasm
  • Trigger point therapy to release restricted tight muscles
  • Strengthening exercises of the deep neck flexors and upper back muscles
  • Posture correction and re-education of postural muscles
  • Acupuncture or dry needling,
  • Kinesiology taping


Most people with this type of headache notice a difference immediately or within a few days after their treatment, some may take longer, however, with regular treatment manage most manage to keep cervicogenic headaches under control. But as we are all individual, recovery time will be different for each person and will depend on the initial cause of the issue and if you follow the advices from your therapist. Remember to prevent the headaches from returning, continued management by yourself as well as regular treatment with your therapist may be the key. If we are unable to help, we will direct you towards other professionals who may be in a position to offer different advice/management.

All information contained in this post is for general guidance and information only. It should not be relied as a basis for planning medical care or as a substitute for specialist medical advice in each individual case.


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