Did you know that neck pain may be contributing to why you are experiencing headaches? Dysfunction in the upper cervical spine (upper neck) can cause a musculoskeletal response that results in a type of headache called a cervicogenic headache.
A cervicogenic headache is a type of headache that occurs due to referred pain from the neck and is typically on one side of the head. It starts in the back of the head and goes all the way around to behind the eye like a ram’s horn. Those who have cervicogenic headaches often also have neck pain with decreased range of motion, pain is typically only on one side of their head and neck, and the headache can be aggravated with specific head movements.
The entire body is intricately connected and dysfunction in one area can cause dysfunction in another. For cervicogenic headaches, there is dysfunction in the upper cervical neck that irritates the nerves in those segments. Trauma to the neck, whiplash, a strain, etc. can all cause dysfunction that may result in a cervicogenic headache. Patients also typically have increased muscle tenderness on the affected side. Those experiencing cervicogenic headaches are typically in their early 30s.
In those with acute neck pain that is causing headaches, it is recommended that patients complete supervised active mobility exercises rather than the use of a cervical collar. While someone who is experiencing neck pain may subconsciously avoid moving their head to avoid neck pain, it has been found that it is beneficial to do carefully move it. A physical therapist will develop an exercise plan that will be aimed at the upper cervical vertebrae and musculature to help aid in increased motion with decreased pain.
When pain has been present longer, cervical manipulation and mobilization, as well as stretching of the shoulder and neck, are beneficial for reducing pain and disability. Cervical manipulations are when therapists apply carefully directed forces to different bones, ligaments, or muscles in the neck to aid in restoring function and decreasing pain. Cervicoscapular strengthening and endurance exercises have also been shown to be beneficial for chronic neck pain. Ultimately, there is a benefit for combining exercise and manual therapy to aid in the improvement of headaches and chronic neck pain.
If this sounds like something you may be experiencing, schedule an evaluation with a physical therapist today. Our therapists at Aligned Orthopedic & Sports Therapy are able to help treat neck pain and headaches in all of our locations.
Blanpied PR, Gross AR, Elliott JM, et al. Neck Pain: Revision 2017. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2017;47(7):A1-A83. doi:10.2519/jospt.2017.0302
Al Khalili Y, Ly N, Murphy PB. Cervicogenic Headache. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; March 8, 2021.
Miller J, Gross A, D’Sylva J, et al. Manual therapy and exercise for neck pain: a systematic review. Man Ther. 2010;15(4):334-354.