Is your Headache a Pain in the Neck?

Headaches where the pain originates in the cervical spine (upper spine), neck and upper shoulders are often referred to as a “cervicogenic” headache. Many times, these headaches can be a byproduct of injuries such as whiplash, joint or muscle trauma and more commonly due to poor prolonged posture or even cases of severe stress.

Headaches are one of the most common ailments in modern society, approximately 12-15% of the population suffers from headaches each year. Usually these are minor stress or tension related headaches, and in some people are more severe migraine headaches. Unfortunately, one type of headache that is often overlooked and misdiagnosed is the cervicogenic headache.

Cervicogenic headaches are one of the most common types of headache, and are clinically defined as pain that is present in the head, but which originates in the cervical spine. The pain associated with this condition is an example of referred pain. This occurs because the nerves that supply the sensation in the upper neck also supply the skin overlying the head, forehead, jawline, back of the ear and behind the eye. Pain that begins in the base of your neck in the cervical spine and then progressively spreads upwards into the head is a typical symptom of cervicogenic headache.

There are two symptoms that are classic to those with cervicogenic headaches.


  • The first is that the headache can be made worse or actually onset by head or neck movement.
  • The second is that there is marked tenderness in the suboccipital (base of head) region.

A thorough examination by your physiotherapist or doctor is usually sufficient to diagnose cervicogenic headache. Occasionally further investigations may be required, such as Xray or CT scan / MRI if there are some complicating symptoms and circumstances. These headaches arising from the neck generally respond quite quickly to treatment and a complete resolution of symptoms can be expected if there are no underlying causes still present. In some cases where the headaches are quite long-term (chronic) your physiotherapist may have to address your posture (study, work and sleep), spinal stiffness, muscle weakness / tightness and imbalances, along with advice on exercises, pillows for sleep and other lifestyle factors. Immediate treatment is the best management for all headaches caused by the neck that do not resolve within a few days of rest and analgesia.

Local physiotherapist, Craig Steele, has had extensive experience in treating headaches and neck / jaw problems related to cervicogenic headaches. He can be contacted at Hinteractive Physio on 5442 5556 for consultations and further advice regarding your treatment.

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