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Cervicogenic Headache: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

By Dr. Amod Manocha in Pain Management

Apr 03 , 2019 | 1 min read

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What is Cervicogenic Headache?

Cervicogenic headache, in simple terms, means headache originating from the neck. Even though you experience pain in the head or part of the face, the actual problem lies in the neck. The possible pain generators in the neck include the joints, discs, surrounding tissues such as the neck muscles, coverings of the spinal cord, and blood vessels. 

Cervicogenic headaches are often easily overlooked and are underdiagnosed due to limited awareness about the condition. This type of headache is treatable with the possibility of good relief.

Cervicogenic Headache - Symptoms

Some of the cervicogenic headache symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Neck, shoulder, or arm pain on one side
  • Increase in headaches with neck movements such as nodding or neck rotation 
  • Increase pain with pressure on specific sensitive points in the neck 
  • Stiffness and reduced range of neck movements 
  • Pain is generally one-sided, although both sides can also be involved
  • Generally described as a pressure sensation at the back, side or front of the head, or in the area around the eye. Pain may be episodic or constant
  •  Nausea & vomiting and other  features similar to migraine can be present

Cervicogenic Headache- Causes

Following are some of the cervicogenic headache causes

  • Degenerative changes in the neck joints e.g. osteoarthritis.
  • Discs of the cervical spine.
  • Whiplash injury/ neck trauma.
  • Neck muscle spasms.
  • Bad neck posture for long periods.

Cervicogenic Headache- Diagnosis

Cervicogenic headache diagnosis can be challenging, as other headache types can present similar features. 

    1. History of pain- Your doctor will obtain a detailed history, often taking you back to when it had first started. 
    2. Personal and medical history- Besides pain, he may ask you about stress levels, work, eating and sleep habits, medication usage, etc. 
    3. Diagnostic investigations such as X-ray, MRI, CT scans can help support the diagnosis. 
    4. Nerve block injection is often used for confirmation of the diagnosis.

Cervicogenic Headache- Treatment

These include:
  1. Lifestyle changes such as -
    • Regulation of sleep cycle
    • Modifying workplace ergonomics
  2. Medications- may include 
    • NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) 
    • Painkillers acting on the nerves (Neuropathic medication) 
    • Muscle relaxants
  3. Nerve blocks- Injections that numb the nerves can provide pain relief and help in identifying the source of pain.
  4. Radiofrequency treatment-In this treatment, the doctor uses radio waves to heat the needle tip, which makes the part of the nerve dysfunctional, thus restricting the flow of pain signals.
  5. Physical therapy- can help stretch and relax the neck and surrounding muscles. 
  6. Psychology input- It may involve
    • Relaxation therapy
    • Biofeedback
    • Cognitive behavioural therapy 
  7. Surgery- reserved for cases with severe changes or nerve compression unresponsive to other treatment modalities.