You might be surprised to learn that an estimated 15-20% of headaches actually come from the neck, and not from the head.
A neck headache (formally called a cervicogenic headache) results when your nerve system gets a bit confused. The upper 3 cervical spinal nerves share the same pathway to the brain as the nerve that carries messages from your face to your brain. So sometimes the pain in your neck is misunderstood and the brain “feels” as though the pain is coming from the head.
This type of headache can originate from dysfunction in the neck joints, muscles, the vertebrae in the spinal column or the spinal covering; so the possible causes are many and varied.
The most common cause is dysfunction in the upper three neck joints. Headaches can result if these joints are too stiff or locked into an abnormal position due to poor posture. Too much joint movement is also a problem, so you can get a headache if your neck muscles are weak, allowing the joints to become wobbly.
The neck and shoulder blade muscles that originate in your neck can also cause headaches if they become overworked, knotted or go into spasm. A fall, sports injury, whiplash or arthritis may also result in a neck headache.
Most commonly these headaches feel like they are radiating from the base of your skull to the front of your head. Normally the pain will be worse on one side of your head or face.
One sign of a neck headache is pain triggered by sudden movement of your neck, such as when you sneeze. Another is that you get a headache when your neck remains in the same position for some time, such as sleeping on your stomach with your head turned to one side.
Frequently neck headaches are accompanied by tenderness at the top of the neck or base of the skull. However, you can experience a neck headache even if your neck isn’t sore, which is why these headaches are often misdiagnosed as a migraine or a cluster headache.
A thorough examination by a physiotherapist is usually the best way to diagnose cervicogenic headache. You can experience a neck headache with or without abnormalities showing up in a scan or x-ray. So a physical examination is the best place the start.
In some cases an x-ray, CT scan or MRI may be needed to identify the precise structural cause of your neck headache, but this is much less common.
The really good news about neck headache is that relief is often immediate, once diagnosed and treated.
The precise treatment will depend upon the source of the problem. Stiff neck joints may need to be loosened using a gentle joint mobilisation technique. Hypermobile (or unstable) joints may require deep neck muscle strengthening exercises to stabilise and limit joint movement. Stretching, massage or acupuncture may be used to relax tight or over active muscles. Weak muscles may require specific strengthening exercises.
Your physiotherapist will work with you to determine a program of stretches, massage, joint mobilisation and exercise that will alleviate the problem with your neck… and ultimately will relieve the pain in your head.
If you suspect that you might be suffering from a neck headache then we invite you to book a FREE pre-assessment with one of Mid North Coast Physio’s professional physiotherapists. Find out if we can help without spending a cent. Don’t suffer any longer.
This article was created as part of the Your Health Experts program. We are working with other local health experts to bring you the tips, advice and information you need to lead a healthy life. To make sure you get all this great information subscribe to our monthly mini-magand follow us on Facebook.
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