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All You Need to Know About the Causes of a Cervicogenic Headache

Man Holding head and Neck for Cervicogenic Headache

Last updated on January 6th, 2023 at 12:01 pm

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A cervicogenic headache (CGH) initially manifests in form of pain that starts in the neck. So, several conditions can cause this. Degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis, a prolapsed disc, or a whiplash injury can be a trigger.

You can also get it after falling or playing an outdoor sport, especially if you’ve hurt your neck in the process.

Cervicogenic headache tumor

Man holding neck for headache tumor pain

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Unlike general headaches, cervicogenic headaches originate from the neck, affecting the mobility of the neck by reducing its range of motion.

There have been multiple research studies, that have found certain kinds of tumors that originate in the deep tissues of the neck, can mimic a cervicogenic headache.

This can be confusing and hard to diagnose at first, as both begin in the neck. Furthermore, in many cases, a cervicogenic headache can be a symptom of a parapharyngeal tumor.

Let’s say a person suddenly experiences a cervicogenic headache, without any history of neck trauma. Furthermore, this headache is not increasing with neck movement.

We can say it is highly likely that this is happening due to a tumor in his neck.

Can cervicogenic headaches be cured?

A cervicogenic headache can come up from time to time and be exhausting. However, certain procedures can help you lessen the pain and prevent repeat occurrences.

It is important to confirm that you are suffering from a cervicogenic headache. Your doctor would be confirming this by identifying the origin of the pain.

Some of the useful ways to deal with a cervicogenic headache are as follows:

  • Pain-relief medicines – A cervicogenic headache can inflame the surrounding soft tissues of the neck region along with the muscles, joints, and nerves present in the area. To mitigate the pain caused by this inflammation, pain-relief medications may be recommended by your physician.
  • Some of the popular over-the-counter medications of this type include – aspirin, Tylenol, muscle relaxants, corticosteroids, etc.
  • Physiotherapy – Physical therapy can help you regain muscle control by making the afflicted neck muscles stronger. It can also improve the ease at which you can move your neck.
  • There are many options such as muscle therapy, chiropractic activities, acupuncture, posture improvement, and other relaxation techniques.
  • Surgical intervention – In certain cases of severe nerve compression, spine surgery can be the only viable option.
  • Nerve block injection – Some cases can also require the nerves at the back of your head to be blocked by producing anesthesia. This is usually done to mitigate severe pain.
  • Exercise – Regular exercise is a great way to make inflamed neck muscles stronger.

Some cases of cervicogenic headaches cannot be prevented or cured. In these cases, the main problem is an autoimmune disorder such as osteoarthritis.

It is vital to practice proper posture to avoid head or neck injuries as much as possible.

Symptoms of cervicogenic headache

Man in the blue shirt holding the head for cervicogenic headache

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You can experience mild discomfort to severe pain on one side of the head or neck while suffering from a cervicogenic headache. Pain can be felt continuously in the neck, head, shoulder, or arm.

Some of its common symptoms are as follows:

  • Low to severe pain in the head and neck region.
  • Stiffness in the neck with limited mobility and range of motion.
  • Multiple pain points, affecting the back of the head, scalp, forehead, temple, etc.
  • One of the eyes can produce blurry vision as well.
  • Pain can also arise between the shoulder blades in some cases.

Some of the less common symptoms are as follows:

  • Nausea
  • Higher light and sound sensitivity
  • Inflammation and swelling around one of the eyes
  • Pain while swallowing food
  • One-sided facial pain

What causes cervicogenic neck pain?

Cervicogenic neck pain is a common symptom of a cervicogenic headache that can stem from either a physical or neurological condition. Neck pain may be caused by blunt trauma to the head or neck, fracture, dislocation, or whiplash injury.

It can also arise from a pre-existing condition such as arthritis, cancer, tumor, or infection. Poor posture during sleep, while sitting or driving can also cause pain in the neck.

Cervicogenic headache treatment

Cervicogenic headache treatment

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Cervicogenic headaches can be dealt with using a variety of medical techniques, they are as follows:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines and anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen or aspirin.
  • Nerve-blocking agents can be used to dull the pain and work well alongside physical therapy.
  • Agility training, flexibility training, and mobility training can help strengthen weakened neck muscles. Your physician can guide you on which exercise regimen would be most suitable for you.
  • A combination of physiotherapy, massage, and exercise can be highly effective as well. An osteopath can guide you on how to combine these while keeping it safe.
  • Surgery would be the only option if the pain is severe.
  • There are several non-surgical options as well to minimize the pain such as yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, acupuncture, etc.

What nerve causes cervicogenic headaches?

Commonly a cervicogenic headache is caused by compression, irritation, or inflammation of the cervical spinal nerves. These nerves form the third occipital nerve.

This nerve travels around the back of the head and scalp, which is the main pain path in case of a cervicogenic headache.

Cervicogenic headache exercises

Many simple exercises can help you get rid of cervicogenic headaches. You can practice these basic exercises in the comfort of your home to prevent the headaches in future as well.

Some of the popular headache exercises are as follows:

  • Cervical retraction – It is a neck exercise that helps you make your neck muscles stronger. It involves gentle & accurate movement of your head in alignment with your neck while sitting.
  • Deep neck flexor exercises – These exercises can help you identify whether you have cervical flexor dysfunction or not. The basic supine neck retraction involves holding the chin towards the neck, holding for a few seconds, and then releasing the hold slowly.
  • Corrected posture holding exercises – Here the objective is to keep your neck in perfect alignment and keep the natural curvature of the spine. Neck stretch is a common posture-holding exercise that involves gently lowering your left ear towards your left shoulder, holding for 10-15 seconds, and repeating on the other side.
  • Doorway pectoral stretch – This requires you to stand in front of an open doorway, and raise both arms to the side bent 90 degrees with palms in front. Slowly step forward with one foot to feel the stretch in your shoulder and chest, hold for 30 seconds and relax.
  • Thoracic spine extensions with a Swiss ball – This is a great exercise to target the middle and upper back and neck to improve spine mobility & improve core control and stability. It can also help you locate the areas that are responsible for mobility issues.
  • Scapular Squeezes – These involve pulling your shoulder blades slightly downwards while bringing your inward while standing straight. It activates your chest muscles and improves posture.
  • Supine snow angels – It is a strength exercise that involves periodic shoulder rotation to support good posture while mitigating shoulder and neck pain.

What relieves cervicogenic headaches?

Physiotherapy is the ideal form of treatment as they are natural & simple. Exercise routines can be practiced at home daily such as shoulder blade squeezes, posture training, etc.

Steroidal injections can also be used in some cases, especially if the inflammation point is in the root of the nerve. In rare cases, cognitive behavior therapy can also help to significantly improve the quality of life.

Cervicogenic headache treatment at home

Cervicogenic can be managed at home by practicing suitable physiotherapy exercises such as cervical retraction, deep neck flexor activation, posture exercises, shoulder blade & scapular squeezes, etc.

To prevent it, ergonomic chairs should also be used which provide lumbar and neck support.

Can MRI detect cervicogenic headaches?

Medical imagery techniques such as X-rays, CT scans & MRI scans can help support a diagnosis but are not able to fully confirm the diagnosis. This is because the bulging of the cervical disc as seen from these scans might not always be the result of a cervicogenic headache.

To fully confirm the diagnosis, physical tests have to be combined with the subjective examination in the form of patient interviews by the physician.

Cervicogenic headache NHS

As per the NHS (National Health Service), UK – cervicogenic headaches are relatively common as 20% of all headache-related cases, turn out to be cervicogenic headaches.

They recommend following proper sleep patterns with at least 8 hours of sleep, regular exercise, quarterly eye check-ups & stress management to prevent cervicogenic headaches from occurring.

How long can a cervicogenic headache last?

A cervicogenic headache can last from an hour to several weeks in a single episode. Mild cases can be treated at home and will disperse after a few hours or days.

However, if the underlying cause is a degenerative condition – the headache is likely to come back without medical assistance.

Cervicogenic headache diagnosis

To diagnose a cervicogenic headache correctly, examining the patient’s medical history, patient interviews, physical tests, and nerve blocks have to be used in tandem.

This is because many other conditions can also mimic a cervicogenic headache and setting up the wrong treatment plan could backfire greatly.

FAQ relating to causes of cervicogenic headaches

What mimics cervicogenic headache?

These diseases usually mimic cervicogenic headaches – migraine, tension-type headache, occipital neuralgia, Chiari malformation, posterior fossa tumor, vascular abnormalities, etc.

How are cervicogenic headaches diagnosed?

These headaches are typically diagnosed by combining subjective & objective examinations by doctors.

How painful are cervicogenic headaches?

Such headaches can be as painful as a migraine attack or tension-type headache. The patient usually feels continuous pain that does not have a throbbing effect on one side of the head.

How long can a cervicogenic headache last?

The duration of the headache depends on the severity of inflammation and whether an underlying degenerative condition is present. So, it can last from a couple of hours to several weeks or months.

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