A cervicogenic headache is a pain that develops in the neck, though a person feels the pain in their head.

Cervicogenic headaches are secondary headaches. Secondary headaches are those caused by an underlying condition, such as neck injuries, infections, or severe high blood pressure. This sets them apart from primary headaches, such as migraines and cluster headaches.

The pain caused by a cervicogenic headache begins in the neck and the back of the head and radiates towards the front of the head. People may confuse cervicogenic headaches with migraines and tension headaches, both of which can cause neck pain.

In this article, we discuss some symptoms, causes, and treatments for cervicogenic headaches.

Symptoms

Typically, people who have cervicogenic headaches experience a headache accompanied by neck pain and stiffness. Certain neck movements can provoke cervicogenic headaches.

In most cases, cervicogenic headaches develop on one side of the head, starting from the back of the head and neck and radiating toward the front.

Some other symptoms of a cervicogenic headache include:

  • a reduced range of motion in the neck
  • pain on one side of the face or head
  • pain and stiffness of the neck
  • pain around the eyes
  • pain in the neck, shoulder, or arm on one side
  • head pain that is triggered by certain neck movements or positions
  • sensitivity to light and noise
  • nausea
  • blurred vision

What causes a cervicogenic headache?

Cervicogenic headaches result from structural problems in the neck and are often due to problems with vertebrae at the top of the spine, called the cervical vertebrae, and specifically the C2-3 vertebra.

Some people develop cervicogenic headaches because they work in jobs that involve them straining their necks. These jobs include hair stylists, manual laborers, and drivers.

People can also develop cervicogenic headaches after an injury to the neck. This is better known as whiplash.

Some medical conditions that can cause cervicogenic headaches include:

  • tumors
  • fractures
  • infections
  • arthritis of the upper spine
  • whiplash or another injury to the neck

Treatment

Treatments for cervicogenic headaches focus on removing the cause of the pain. Treatments vary depending on the person and the severity of their symptoms.

Some treatments for cervicogenic headaches include:

Medications

A healthcare provider may recommend prescription or over-the-counter pain medications to relieve painful or uncomfortable symptoms. Medications that treat cervicogenic headaches include:

  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen
  • muscle relaxers
  • antiseizure medications
  • antidepressants

Physical therapy

Physical therapy is an effective treatment for cervicogenic headaches since a structural problem in the neck usually causes them.

People can work with a physical therapist to develop specialized treatment programs. At the first appointment, a physical therapist will identify the source of the pain. From there, they may stimulate the soft tissue and move the joints around to relieve painful symptoms.

Transcutaneuos electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)

TENS units use small electrodes placed on the skin to send small electrical signals to stimulate nerves near the source of pain. TENS may help some people with a cervicogenic headache, but the relief does not usually last very long.

Radio frequency ablation

People with chronic headaches may benefit from radio frequency ablation. Also called radio frequency neurolysis, this procedure involves using radio waves to heat the tip of a needle. A doctor will then apply the needle to the nerve that is causing the pain. The heat from the needle effectively deadens the nerve, interrupting the nerves ability to send pain signals to the brain.

Complications

If left untreated, a cervicogenic headache can become debilitating. Some people can also experience chronic, or recurring, cervicogenic headaches. If this happens to someone, they should contact their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

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