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Understanding Cervicogenic Headaches

Introduction

Headaches are a common ailment that can arise from various sources, and one lesser-known headache type is the cervicogenic headache. Unlike other headaches, cervicogenic headaches originate from issues in the cervical spine (neck). In this blog post, we will delve into what cervicogenic headaches are, explore their causes, symptoms, and discuss effective ways to manage and prevent this often misunderstood form of head pain.





What is a Cervicogenic Headache?


A cervicogenic headache is a type of headache that originates from the neck, specifically the cervical spine or base of the skull. Unlike tension headaches or migraines, which have primary sources in the head, cervicogenic headaches are what we refer to as secondary headaches, where the pain is referred from somewhere else. This means that the pain is perceived in the head, but its source is in the neck.


Causes of Cervicogenic Headaches:


1. Neck Issues

   Cervicogenic headaches often result from structural issues in the neck, such as muscle tightness or joint dysfunction.


2. Injury or Trauma

   Previous neck injuries, such as whiplash from car accidents or sports injuries, can contribute to cervicogenic headaches.


3. Sustained Postures

   Maintaining certain postures for extended periods, whether at a desk or during other activities, can strain the neck and lead to cervicogenic headaches.


4. Arthritis, Disc Issues or other Structural changes

   While structural changes such as arthritis or herniated discs in the cervical spine can often be asymptomatic, there are cases where they can increate the likelihood of neck sensitivity and pain that manifests as headaches.


Symptoms of Cervicogenic Headaches


Cervicogenic headaches often exhibit the following characteristics:


  • Unilateral Pain: The pain is typically on one side of the head.


  • Neck Pain and Stiffness: Discomfort in the neck is a common accompanying symptom.


  • “Trigger Points” Although the presence of trigger points is debated, individuals complaining of cervicogenic headache will often present with tenderness to touch over the muscles of the neck and shoulder area.


  • Limited Range of Motion: Individuals with cervicogenic headaches may experience limitations in their neck range of motion.


Diagnosis and Treatment:


Diagnosing cervicogenic headaches can be challenging, as their symptoms can overlap with other types of headaches. However, healthcare professionals often use a combination of medical history, physical examination, and occasionally imaging tests (more to rule out other causes) to make an accurate diagnosis.


Treatment options may include:


1. Physical Therapy: Targeted exercises and stretches to improve neck muscle strength, control and flexibility. General exercise may be prescribed to help decrease overall nervous system sensitivity. 


2. Medications: Pain relievers, muscle relaxants, or nerve blocks may be prescribed to manage symptoms, although these should not be used as a long-term intervention


3. Postural advice: This may include education on how to decrease time spent in aggravating positions or strategies to increase variety in posture


4. Interventional Procedures: In some cases, procedures such as nerve blocks or radiofrequency ablation may be recommended to alleviate pain.


Preventing Cervicogenic Headaches:


Vary your Posture: Try to decrease the time spent in one sitting posture


Stay Active: Regular exercise, particularly activities that promote neck flexibility and strength, can help prevent cervicogenic headaches.


Take Breaks: If you have a desk job or engage in activities that involve prolonged neck positioning, take breaks to stretch and move.


Conclusion


Understanding cervicogenic headaches is crucial for those who experience persistent head pain, especially if accompanied by neck discomfort. By addressing the underlying causes and adopting preventive measures, individuals can take significant steps towards managing and alleviating the impact of cervicogenic headaches on their daily lives. If you suspect you are suffering from cervicogenic headaches, consulting with a healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation is recommended for an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.


If you are interested in learning more about headaches, check out the following podcast episode!




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