Cervicogenic Headaches: Neck Pain


Cervicogenic Headaches: A Pain In The Neck!


Headaches and neck pain are quite common amongst the general population. The World Health Organisation reports that last year, almost 50% ALL ADULTS suffered a headache once or on multiple occasions.



It is quite literally a pain in the neck!



There are a few different types of headaches, however, there is a particular type that can be treated effectively through manual therapy and exercise, which is called a cervicogenic headache.



What Is Cervicogenic Headache?


Cervicogenic headache is a type of headache where the symptoms begin from the neck. 


The cause is related to the soft-tissue around the neck area. And in most cases, other factors such as emotional and physical tension can cause headaches.


When you have cervicogenic neck pain, you may feel pain in the jaw, head, forehead, back of your eyes, and/or ears. Typically, the pain is referred from the top three vertebrae in the neck.



People that suffer from this headache are mostly aged between 20 and 60 years, though anybody can have it regardless of their age. There is a greater number of teenagers experiencing these headaches due to the increased stress and study times associated with schooling.


Cervicogenic headache can occur when you slouch for long, sit in a poor posture, or work in sustained postures i.e. sitting on your computer for a prolonged period of time.


I am sure some people can relate to having a long, stressful day at work, sitting down without any breaks and the boss is busting your chops….then a raging headache starts!



Can Physio Help With Headaches?


Physiotherapy has been shown to help with headaches through the use of joint mobilisations, massage and specific neck mobility and strengthening exercises.


Symptom reduction should occur within 1-2 weeks where the intensity and duration of headache symptoms will diminish.


Why 1 to 2 Weeks?


It takes a few sessions for your muscles to decrease in tone or tension which then allows the pain sensitivity to decrease over that given time period.


Everyone’s symptoms behave differently, but everyone’s tissue healing times are the same, with full tissue recovery around 6 weeks.


So I Should Be Back Around The 6 Week Mark?


Basically, cervicogenic headaches are caused by poor posture, stiffness of joints in the upper back and neck, muscle imbalance and previous trauma. To ensure that physiotherapy helps with headaches, the upper back and neck are carefully and fully assessed.


This enables the physiotherapist to focus the treatment accurately and ensure that the symptoms don’t just get treated, but the cause of the headache are dealt with to reduce the chances of headaches in the future.


This process does take time and is not an overnight fix.



What Do Physios Specifically Do For Neck Pain?




Your physio will need to take a detailed history of all the things surrounding the time of when you first got your headache, and a history of previous injuries. Below are some of the things that will be covered specific to neck pain:


  • Any trauma: current or previous trauma, motor vehicle accidents
  • Stress: work stress or life stress
  • Prolonged postures: at work or home
  • Work ergonomics: ergonomic set-up


Then a physical assessment looks at:


  • Posture: neck posture, thoracic posture
  • Joint stiffness: decreased movement and/or increased sensitivity around the neck, head, jaw, thoracic spine
  • Muscle imbalance: assessing the strength and control of the deep neck stabilisers





Headache and neck pain treatment is individualised and based upon assessment findings. The principles of treatment are similar to acute low back pain and may include:


  • Massage
  • Dry needling and trigger point therapy
  • Joint mobilisations
  • Education: Work ergonomics, posture, pillow use
  • Stress management: physical therapies help with stress management but giving you the tools to deal with stress at home or work is vital
  • Exercise: Strengthening of the deep neck stabilisers are key to decreasing recurrence of headaches and is the cornerstone to your treatment



The Bottom Line


Physiotherapy is your new headache pill!


Physio can help with headaches when administered properly and can use different techniques for restoring movements while helping the you work on the other causative factors, to decrease the chances of you getting a headache in the future.


If you want to know a bit more about what physiotherapy is and how it can help, have a read here for further information.


David Bruzzese (MPA, AEP)

APA Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist & Accredited Exercise Physiologist

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