Cervicogenic headaches are a specific kind of headache that originate from the neck. They can be caused by tightness in the muscles of the neck, or linked to the neck by nerves.

Pain distribution in cervicogenic headaches and muscles involved

Symptoms of a Cervicogenic headache

This type of headache is quite different from a migraine, but easily confused with a tension type headache. Typical symptoms of CGH are:

  • One sided pain in the head
  • Pain focused over the temple or eye area
  • Headache worsened by pressing into the back of the neck

Aura, nausea, and sensitivity to light are not common symptoms, which sets it apart from migraines. The main difference between CGH and tension type headaches is that the latter typically affects both sides.

Muscles and Nerves

Muscles at the top of the neck can be irritated by overuse. Their job is to lift the head, which you may ask them to do more if you’re slouching at a computer all day. If these small muscles get tight, they can cause pain to spread over the top of the head. Changing position, self massage, or a warm or cool compress may help.

Trapped nerves

Sometimes headaches are caused by trapped nerves in the neck. This could be something transient, like a tight muscle causing some irritation. It could also be caused by a bulging disc or irritable joint.

Nerves leaving the neck further down supply the arm, not the neck. So the same problem at the base of the neck might cause pain, numbness, or pins and needles in the arm. This nerve would not be able to cause a headache.

Referred pain

One common way the nerves are linked to cervicogenic headaches is through referred pain. This is when the brain misinterprets the cause of a painful stimulus. That doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you! This is a common error that frequently plays into things like lower back pain.

To put it simply, a single nerve will cover quite a broad area of the body. If anything in this area causes pain, this nerve will deliver a pain signal to the brain. It is then up to the brain to work out exactly where the cause of pain is. It might misinterpret a neck pain signal as a head pain signal if the nerve covers both areas. All this means is that the neck is the part that needs treating.

Treatment and Management of Cervicogenic Headaches

Most of these headaches will relieve themselves within a day, but if they keep coming back you might want some help. Just like with tight muscles and irritated nerves in the lower back, there will be a cause for recurring neck problems.

If something is irritating a nerve in the neck, it might be related to an area of stiffness further down the spine. Or if the muscles are overworking, there might be something about your desk set-up that could benefit from a change. Your osteopath can cover all of these things during your assessment. The aim is to find any related factors and help you solve them to minimise your headaches. We can also give you advice to help manage your headaches at home.

If this sounds like something you would benefit from, make an appointment with us today.