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What Is Cervicogenic Headache? Causes and Treatment

Published: 10:35 am, Thu April 4, 2024

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Have you ever had a headache that feels like it's coming straight from your neck and throbbing in head? That might be a cervicogenic headache. While not the most common type, it affects a significant portion of people who experience headaches.

What Is Cervicogenic Headache?

Cervicogenic headaches, often called CGH, are secondary headaches arising from dysfunction in the cervical spine or the upper part of your neck. They affect persons between the ages of 30 and 44 of the general population.

That might seem small, but amongst people who experience headaches, the numbers jump significantly. Studies suggest CGH affects a whopping 0.4 to 4% of those with headaches – making it a frequent culprit behind head pain.

What Are the Symptoms of Cervicogenic Headaches

If you're experiencing cervicogenic headache (CH), you might notice pain shooting through your neck with sudden movements or prolonged positions.

The pain typically sticks to one side of your head or face and feels constant rather than throbbing. Coughing, sneezing, or even taking a deep breath can trigger head pain, which can last for hours or even days.

Alongside the head pain, you might find your neck stiff, making it difficult to move normally.

Sometimes, the symptoms of CH overlap with those of migraines, adding to the confusion. Nausea, vomiting, discomfort in bright light or loud noise, and even blurry vision can accompany both conditions.

It's not uncommon for someone to experience both CH and migraines simultaneously, making it tricky to pinpoint exactly what's causing the discomfort.

Causes of Cervicogenic Headaches 

Cervicogenic headaches can happen for many reasons, and sometimes, it's tough to pin down exactly what's causing them.

They often pop up because of long-term issues with your neck's bones, joints, or muscles. This is very likely if you are working in jobs where you're constantly holding your head in a certain way, like hair stylists or truck drivers – that repetitive strain can lead to these headaches.

Also, bad posture doesn't help either. If you're always sticking your head out in front of your body, it puts a ton of extra weight on your neck and upper back, setting the stage for these headaches.

Sudden incidents like falls, sports injuries, or whiplash from a car crash are also potential triggers. Sometimes, it's as simple as nerves getting pinched in your neck.

In rare cases, more serious issues like tumors or fractures in your upper spine or neck can be behind these headaches.

So cervicogenic headaches can come from a mix of everyday strains, accidents, and sometimes some pretty serious issues.

Methods for Treating Cervicogenic Headaches

To effectively treat and manage cervicogenic headaches, various methods can provide relief and reduce the likelihood of future episodes.

Firstly, your physician will diagnose whether you indeed have a cervicogenic headache. This often involves applying pressure to various areas of your neck and the base of your head to identify the origin of your pain.

Additionally, they may assess how different neck positions provoke or worsen your headaches. If these maneuvers trigger a headache, it confirms the diagnosis of cervicogenic headache.

After diagnosis, your doctor will decide on one of these methods:

Medication

To alleviate the pain associated with cervicogenic headaches, your doctor might suggest various medications.

These can range from over-the-counter options like aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to prescription medications tailored to address specific issues.

Muscle relaxants can help ease muscle tightness and reduce spasms, while your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids to target inflammation and other underlying problems with the nerves, muscles, tendons, or joints.

Physical Therapy

In addition to medication, your doctor might suggest physical therapy as part of your treatment plan for cervicogenic headaches. This therapy aims to strengthen weakened neck muscles and enhance joint mobility.

Furthermore, alternative therapies can complement traditional treatments by alleviating nerve, joint, or muscle pain in the neck.

These alternative approaches may include:

  • massage therapy
  • chiropractic care for spinal manipulation
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • acupuncture
  • relaxation techniques

To manage pain effectively, you can also incorporate lifestyle adjustments such as:

  • Avoiding activities that exacerbate pain
  • Using ice or heat packs for short intervals several times a day
  • A neck brace while sleeping upright prevents excessive forward bending of the neck. 
  • Maintaining good posture throughout daily activities like sitting, standing, or driving can help alleviate symptoms

Surgical Procedures

In rare instances where cervicogenic headaches are a result of nerve compression, you may need spine surgery to correct the condition.

Alternatively, your doctor may diagnose and treat cervicogenic headaches through a nerve block procedure.

A nerve block procedure involves injecting a combination of a numbing agent and a corticosteroid directly into or near the nerves at the back of your head.

If your headache subsides following this intervention, it confirms a nerve-related issue in or around your neck. Additionally, doctors may use imaging tests such as:

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • MRIs

These imaging tests will show the neck's internal structures and identify joint or soft tissue abnormalities.

Preventive Measures 

While some cervicogenic headaches are unavoidable, particularly those associated with conditions like osteoarthritis that develop with age, there are ways to prevent them to reduce the frequency and severity of these headaches.

Key ways to prevent cervicogenic headaches include:

  • Maintaining good posture, whether you're sitting or driving. 
  • Avoid sleeping with your head propped too high on a pillow.
  • Keeping your neck and spine aligned while sleeping.
  • If you find yourself sleeping in a chair or sitting upright frequently, a neck brace can help maintain proper alignment.

Furthermore, minimizing the risk of head and neck collisions during sports activities can prevent injuries to the cervical spine, which may trigger cervicogenic headaches.

DIY Reliefs

For some DIY relief, you can try sustained natural apophyseal glide (SNAG). It's a fancy term for gently using a towel to work on the affected areas of your neck. A physical therapist can show you how to do it.

But if that doesn’t work for you, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or simply using relaxation techniques can also be very effective for headache relief.

Radio-frequency Ablation

If you have chronic headaches that will not quit, consider radiofrequency ablation. This procedure uses radio waves to numb the pain.

Here's how it works: the doctor uses a needle with a heated tip and targets the affected nerve, causing all the trouble.

Once the needle is in, the heat shuts down the nerve, stopping the pain signals from going to your brain.

Wrapping Up

The Spine Team at Lancaster Orthopedics includes physician experts who regularly treat this condition and other spine problems.  Our team of surgeons, physical therapists and non-surgical specialists work together to identify the source of your pain and create a treatment plan to get you back to the things you love!

Don't let cervicogenic headaches hold you back. Call Lancaster Orthopedic Group today at 717.560.4200 to schedule a consultation and take control of your well-being!

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