What Are Cervicogenic Headaches and How Can PT Help?

By Nicholas Mazzone, PT, DPT, CSCS

 

What are cervicogenic headaches?

A cervicogenic headache is caused by dysfunction in the neck, whether it be from stiff joints in the upper cervical spine or from tension in the muscles near the base of the skull. Pain from this type of headache is typically felt around the skull, temple regions, and eye sockets. The origin of this condition can be traumatic, as in a whiplash injury from a motor vehicle accident, or it could be due to prolonged abnormal load on the joints and muscles of the neck (getactivephysio.com.au).

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What would be a non-traumatic cause of these types of headaches?

The most common non-traumatic cause of cervicogenic headaches is excessive, prolonged load on the joints and muscles of the neck. This is common in people who sit at a desk for most of their day at work. This occurs because the person winds up in a slumped posture in their spine, which eventually leads to what is known as “forward head posture”. This posture leads to increased tension in the muscles at the base of the skull as well as increased pressure on the first three segments of the cervical spine. Over time, this poor sitting posture can cause cervicogenic headaches. Adjusting one’s desk setup to ensure prevention of this situation can be as simple moving the keyboard closer to you. If the keyboard is placed too far away, you will have to slump forward to reach it, which will lead us to the forward head posture discussed above in order to ensure that you can see what is on your screen. Check out the picture below to get a better idea of what your desk setup should look like.

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How can PT help?

Your physical therapist will create a program for you that includes manual therapy, therapeutic exercise, postural training, and stability training. Your program will also include education on how to adjust your desk setup or information on how to alter your current lifestyle in order to help your condition. Manual joint mobilization of the upper cervical spine, soft tissue mobilization of tense muscle tissue, and manual stretching of the region will help soothe the muscles and decrease pressure in the region. You will also be given specific exercises to target the muscles that are weak as well as the muscles that need to be lengthened. While heating modalities can feel good, they should not be the main intervention used in the treatment of cervicogenic headaches.

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Check out this video that demonstrates 3 simple exercises that can help with your cervicogenic headaches:

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Nick Mazzone received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Stony Brook University. He has a strong background in strength and conditioning and aims to bridge the gap between strength training and physical therapy. Nick believes that a lifestyle centered around physical fitness and mental well-being are vital to one’s successes and happiness. For this reason, he educates his patients on pain science and helps empower them and motivate them to reach their goals every day. You can find him at Evolve Physical Therapy in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, NY. To view some of his other content, visit drnickmazzonedpt.wordpress.com.

Resources:

Cervicogenic Headaches. (2016, March 09). Retrieved from http://www.getactivephysio.com.au/cervicogenic-headaches/

Desk posture photo retrieved from https://sinicropispine.com/tips-improve-posture/

Main photo retrieved from http://yoffielife.com/sweat-dictionary/cervicogenic-headaches/

Manual therapy photo retrieved from https://learnmuscles.com/blog/2017/11/10/treat-spinal-joint-dysfunction-manual-therapy/

Whiplash photo retrieved from https://www.bouldercentre.com/news/whiplash-diagnosis-and-treatment

A cervicogenic headache is caused by dysfunction in the neck, whether it be from stiff joints in the upper cervical spine or from tension in the muscles near the base of the skull. Pain from this type of headache is typically felt around the skull, temple regions, and eye sockets. The origin of this condition can be traumatic, as in a whiplash injury from a motor vehicle accident, or it could be due to prolonged abnormal load on the joints and muscles of the neck (getactivephysio.com.au).