Most people think of a headache and see it as a sore head and nothing more. While it can feel like the pain originates in your head, it might actually stem from somewhere else.
Headache pain is “extremely common” according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). In fact, as many as one in every 20 people are affected on an almost daily basis with repeated head pain. One particular type of headache which can create an astonishing amount of throbbing discomfort is the cervicogenic headache. A cervicogenic headache is a type of secondary headache, which means it is caused by another illness or physical issue. For a cervicogenic headache, the actual cause is a disorder of the cervical spine and its component bone, disc and/or soft tissue elements, put simply, the neck area.
A headache associated with neck pain is not necessarily of the cervicogenic variety. Many headache disorders including migraine and tension-type headaches can have associated neck pain/tension. So if you have a headache, you may not know it’s cervicogenic, but there are symptoms that can help identify if there is an underlying cause.
One of the most common symptoms is a reduced range of motion in the neck and the headache seems to worsen with specific neck movements, or when pressure is applied to certain areas on the neck. Often the headache will be on one side only and pain may radiate from the back of the neck/ head up to the front of the head or behind the eye. Cervicogenic headaches can also cause migraine-like symptoms including blurry vision, an upset stomach, as well as noise and light sensitivity.
Different conditions, all which stem from a problem in the neck area, can trigger a cervicogenic headache e.g. a prolapsed disc in the neck, whiplash, or even degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis. Injury or trauma from playing sport or even from a fall can also trigger these headaches. They can occur due to poor posture with a cervical protraction whilst standing or sitting: pushing your chin forward, which moves your head out in front of your body, as can falling asleep in an awkward position, especially when sitting up in bed or in a chair.
An assessment of evidence for the treatment of cervicogenic headaches, published in well-renowned medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, found that patients who suffered from a cervicogenic headache frequently did not respond to medication, suggesting a drug-free treatment plan can be a more suitable course of action. Treatment, however, for a cervicogenic headache needs to target the source of the pain (in the neck), therefore the best way to do that will vary, depending on the patient and the underlying cause.
Treatment aims to not only relieve your immediate symptoms, but also to reduce the frequency and intensity of the headaches. If you think your headaches may be caused by an associated neck issue, speak with your chiropractor. A diagnosis of cervicogenic headache may lead to being rid of that pain in the neck, for good!