Cervicogenic Headache

A cervicogenic headache is actually “referred” pain — head pain caused by a physical or neurological condition in the cervical spine region at the top of the spine and neck. Cervicogenic headaches are relatively common: about 47% of the global population suffers from headaches, and it’s estimated that 15-20% of those headaches are essentially cervicogenic in nature. These headaches can cause debilitating and limited range of motion in the neck, as well as severe head pain. 

What Causes It?

A cervicogenic headache is caused by an injury or other issue in the cervical region of the body, which includes sensitive bones, discs, and soft tissues. Postural issues — for example, from professions such as dentistry, truck driving, or carpentry — can induce stress in the neck area. 

It may also be caused by a fall, sports injury, whiplash, or arthritis, or by a tumor or fracture in the spinal region. 

What Are the Symptoms?

Most cervicogenic headaches begin with neck pain that radiates to the forehead, eye, temple, and ear on one side of the face. Pain is sometimes intermittent but can become continuous, described as a steady ache that doesn't throb. On the affected side, there may also be pain along the shoulder and arm and eye swelling or blurriness. 

Cervicogenic headache typically causes a limited ability to move the head and neck. In addition, headache may worsen with neck movement. 

How Is It Diagnosed?

Stiff neck and neck pain can be symptomatic of other types of headaches, so a headache specialist or doctor will conduct a careful assessment to rule out other causes. Nerve blocks may be used in both diagnosis and treatment — if numbing the cervical region eliminates the headache, it may confirm a diagnosis of cervicogenic headache. 

How Is It Treated?

When a cervicogenic headache is in progress, nerve blocks and over-the-counter painkillers will typically stop the head pain. A healthcare professional might also prescribe other medications, surgeries, or a period of rest to help heal any damage to the cervical region. 

Is It Preventable?

Physical therapy or spinal manipulation performed by a physical therapist, chiropractor, or osteopath can help manage and reduce cervicogenic head pain. Depending on the cause of the pain, certain lifestyle changes may also be helpful — for example, wearing a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike or regularly changing bed pillows for optimal neck support. 

What Causes It?

A cervicogenic headache is caused by an injury or other issue in the cervical region of the body, which includes sensitive bones, discs, and soft tissues. Postural issues — for example, from professions such as dentistry, truck driving, or carpentry — can induce stress in the neck area. 

It may also be caused by a fall, sports injury, whiplash, or arthritis, or by a tumor or fracture in the spinal region. 

What Are the Symptoms?

Most cervicogenic headaches begin with neck pain that radiates to the forehead, eye, temple, and ear on one side of the face. Pain is sometimes intermittent but can become continuous, described as a steady ache that doesn't throb. On the affected side, there may also be pain along the shoulder and arm and eye swelling or blurriness. 

Cervicogenic headache typically causes a limited ability to move the head and neck. In addition, headache may worsen with neck movement. 

How Is It Diagnosed?

Stiff neck and neck pain can be symptomatic of other types of headaches, so a headache specialist or doctor will conduct a careful assessment to rule out other causes. Nerve blocks may be used in both diagnosis and treatment — if numbing the cervical region eliminates the headache, it may confirm a diagnosis of cervicogenic headache. 

How Is It Treated?

When a cervicogenic headache is in progress, nerve blocks and over-the-counter painkillers will typically stop the head pain. A healthcare professional might also prescribe other medications, surgeries, or a period of rest to help heal any damage to the cervical region. 

Is It Preventable?

Physical therapy or spinal manipulation performed by a physical therapist, chiropractor, or osteopath can help manage and reduce cervicogenic head pain. Depending on the cause of the pain, certain lifestyle changes may also be helpful — for example, wearing a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike or regularly changing bed pillows for optimal neck support. 

Sources

  1. WebMd. Cervicogenic Headaches. https://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/cervicogenic-headache-facts_
  2. NIH/National Library of Medicine. Cervicogenic Headaches. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507862/
  3. Spine-Health. What is Cervicogenic Headache? https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/neck-pain/what-cervicogenic-headache
  4. Science Direct. Cervicogenic Headaches: A Critical Review. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1529943001000249

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