Headaches are an extremely common complaint and nearly 90% of people will experience at least one headache each year. Within the spectrum of headaches, multiple types exist, including tension headaches, cluster headaches, migraines and cervicogenic headaches.
Simply put, a cervicogenic headache is a headache that arises from the cervical spine or neck, rather than structures within the head itself. It may be due to poor posture, tightness through the cervical musculature, or decreased mobility through the neck or upper spine. It often occurs in people who work office or desk jobs that tend to sit for extended periods of time, as they tend to sit with forward posture, causing the neck and other structures to become stiff and sore. The headache may increase throughout the day and may go away once the person changes position or lies down to go to sleep at night.
People with cervicogenic headaches may or may not have neck pain, but it often occurs on one or both sides of the neck, often where the base of the skull meets the neck and/or through the temples and forehead. They often notice decreased range of motion or pain when turning to look over their shoulder, or looking up or down. The pain may feel deep, but does not usually throb. In addition, people occasionally experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, or dizziness.
Cervicogenic headaches may be treated with medication, massage, mobilizations and exercises. Physical therapy is often helpful in addressing the underlying causes, including poor posture, weakness, muscular tightness and decreased mobility through the neck and back. Treatment is individualized based on the patient’s presentation and symptoms and may include mobilization of the cervical (neck) or thoracic (upper back) spine, stretching, strengthening, traction, postural retraining, or ergonomic assessment. Recent studies have found manual physical therapy, including mobilization of the cervical and thoracic spine, as well as exercise to be effective in improving symptoms of cervicogenic headaches. If you or someone you know is suffering from headaches, contact your doctor to discuss treatment options.
The author of this article is Lauren Hogan, PT, DPT, ATC from Athletico – Andersonville.