Cervicogenic headache

What is a Cervicogenic Headache?

January 26, 2019

Cervicogenic Headache Overview

The pain in your head is not always caused by a migraine. There is a kind of headaches which is considered as a “secondary headache”. Meaning, the headache is caused by another illness or physical issue. This is called the cervicogenic headache.

A cervicogenic headache can mimic the symptoms of a migraine, so it may be difficult to distinguish which is which. The primary difference though is that migraine is rooted in the brain while a cervicogenic headache is rooted in the cervical spine (neck) or the base of the skull region. In other words, unlike some headaches that are caused by eyestrain, stress, tiredness, or trauma, cervicogenic headaches are caused by problems with the nerves, bones, or muscles in the neck. The pain you feel started from another location in your body although you feel it in your head.

You might not know but there are numerous pain-sensitive structures exist in the cervical (upper neck) and occipital (back of the head) regions including the components of cervical spine namely bone, disc, and/or soft tissue elements.

Cervicogenic Headache’s Symptoms

A cervicogenic headache can have symptoms that are similar to a migraine. So aside from a throbbing head, a patient may experience light and noise sensitivity, blurry vision, and an upset stomach. Moreover, the below symptoms may add discomfort to the already existing ache in your head.

  • A stiff neck
  • Pain while coughing or sneezing
  • Some pain on one side of the head or face
  • Pain around the eyes
  • A headache with certain neck postures or movements

What Triggers a Cervicogenic Headache?

Different conditions can trigger this type of pain including degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, a whiplash injury, or a prolapsed disc in the neck. Playing sports and falling down can also cause injury to the neck and trigger a headache. Poor posture may be another reason to result in a cervicogenic headache.

For instance, sitting or standing for long periods of time with your head unknowingly out in front of your body can put pressure and/or stress on the neck and base of your skull. This is called cervical protraction and it can trigger a headache. People who are hairstylist, carpenter, driver, and an office worker (who sits at a disk for a long period of hours) are very prone to a cervicogenic headache.

Additionally, falling asleep in an awkward position can cause this headache. This can usually happen if you sleep in a chair or while sitting up in a bed. A compressed or pinched nerve in or near the neck is another cause.

How to Treat and Manage a Cervicogenic Headache?

Treatment for cervicogenic headache should target the cause of the pain in the neck. The treatment may vary depending on what works best for the individual patient. There are several techniques available which can help an individual manage the pain and prevent further occurrences.

To diagnose cervicogenic headaches, doctors may put pressure on the different parts of your neck and see if a headache triggers. The doctor may also place your head in different position and see if a headache is provoked.

The method below can help improve your condition if you are diagnosed with cervicogenic headache.


Doctors may suggest oral OTC (on-the-counter) medications or prescribe oral medication to relieve pain since inflammation and other problems with the nerves, muscles, tendons, or joints can cause this headache. Medications include aspirin or ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), a muscle relaxant to ease muscle tightness and reduce spasms, and a corticosteroid.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy may strengthen weak neck muscles and improve the mobility of your joints. There are also other alternative therapies to decrease the pain in the neck’s nerve, joint, or muscles. These include massage therapy, spinal manipulation through chiropractic care, relaxation techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy acupuncture.

Other options for managing the pain include:

  1. Avoiding activities that worsen the pain.
  2. Practicing good posture when sitting or standing, which means standing or sitting tall with your shoulders back and not leaning with your head too far forward.
  3. Using a neck brace when sleeping upright to prevent bending the neck forward.
  4. Applying an ice pack or heat compress for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day.

Surgery or Injection

In rare cases, cervicogenic headache is needed to relieve through spine surgery due to nerve compression.

If a nerve block is diagnosed to be cervicogenic headache’s cause, doctors may involve injecting a numbing agent and/or a corticosteroid into or near the nerves in the back of your head. If numbing the cervical structures abolishes the headache, that can confirm the diagnosis of a cervicogenic headache and also provide relief from the pain.

Sometimes, doctors may require scanning of the inside of your neck through x-ray, CT scan, or MRI to see problems with the joints or soft tissue.

Exercise is also a considered treatment for cervicogenic headache. In fact, according to an article, physical therapy and an ongoing exercise regimen often produce the best treatment outcomes.

How to Prevent Having a Cervicogenic Headache?

Some occurrences are not preventable, such as the case with osteoarthritis condition. Otherwise, some of the same strategies for managing the pain may also prevent these headaches. These include having a proper posture when sitting, standing, driving, or sleeping.

It is important to remember not to stick the head out in front of the body as this may trigger a headache in your head. Do not sleep with your head propped too high on a pillow. Just keep your neck and spine in alignment, and use a neck brace if you are sleeping in a chair or sitting upright. Finally, be careful when playing sports. As much as possible avoid head and neck collision when playing to prevent injury to the cervical spine.