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Cervicogenic Headaches

Cervicogenic HeadachesCervicogenic headaches are a type of severe headache that originates from the cervical spine (neck). Unlike other common types of headaches, like migraines or tension headaches, cervicogenic headaches are often caused by underlying spinal issues in the neck area, inflicting intense pain and impairing the day-to-day life of sufferers. Recognizing the symptoms is crucial for proper diagnosis and effective treatment.

Cervicogenic headaches are a type of secondary headache, because they stem from abnormalities in the bones, nerves, or soft tissues of the cervical region, they can arise from trauma to the head and neck or osteoarthritis of the cervical spine joints, for example.

As medical professionals continue to explore the complex nature of cervicogenic headaches, understanding their connection to spinal pain becomes crucial in developing effective treatment strategies.

The management of this type of headache is very different from that of migraines and tension headaches. For this reason, it’s important to seek a precise diagnosis and comprehensive treatment plan. If you suspect your neck is the culprit behind your headaches, the specialists at Pro Spine & Pain have the expertise to diagnose your condition accurately and provide a fast non-surgical plan for pain relief to get you back to normal.

Symptoms of a Cervicogenic Headache

Cervicogenic headache symptoms can mimic those of a migraine, making the diagnosis difficult. However, there are some differences.

The following conditions are symptomatic of this type of headache:

  • Neck Pain: One of the hallmark symptoms of this type of headache is persistent pain in the neck region. The pain may originate from one side or both sides of the neck and can radiate to areas such as the back of the head, temples, or forehead.
    Triggered by Neck Movement: Cervicogenic headache triggers may include sudden or strained movements of the neck, often coupled with a decrease in neck mobility.
  • Limited Neck Mobility: Another common symptom is restricted range of motion in your neck. You might experience difficulty when trying to turn your head fully left or right, tilt it backward or forward, or even perform simple activities like looking over your shoulder.
  • Headache on One Side: Cervicogenic headaches usually occur on one side of the head or face but can also affect both sides simultaneously. The pain typically feels dull and steady, rather than throbbing like migraines.
  • Shoulder and Arm Pain: Cervical spine dysfunction can cause referred pain into surrounding areas such as shoulders and arms. This discomfort might be accompanied by muscle weakness or numbness in these regions.
  • Tenderness at Base of Skull: People with cervicogenic headaches may feel tenderness around the top of the neck where their upper vertebrae connect with their skull. This is called occipital neuralgia. The touch sensitivity could be localized to specific points near these joints known as trigger points.
  • Visual Disturbances: Similar to migraine, some individuals with cervicogenic headaches may experience visual disturbances during an episode, including blurred vision, light sensitivity (photophobia), double vision (diplopia), or difficulty focusing on objects.
  • Dizziness and Vertigo: This problem can cause dizziness or a spinning sensation known as vertigo. This symptom may worsen with certain head movements or when maintaining a specific posture for an extended period.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: While nausea and vomiting are more commonly associated with migraines, they can also occur in cervicogenic headaches, especially if the pain is severe or persistent.

Diagnosis of Cervicogenic Headaches

Diagnosing cervicogenic headaches can be complex and requires a comprehensive approach. Medical professionals typically begin by conducting a thorough medical history review, paying close attention to the patient’s symptoms, including the location, duration, and intensity of the headaches. Physical examinations may focus on assessing neck mobility, muscle tenderness, and any neurological abnormalities. Imaging studies such as X-rays, MRI, CT scans, or electro-diagnosis (EMG) may be ordered to visualize the cervical spine and identify any structural abnormalities or degenerative changes.

Furthermore, diagnostic tests such as nerve blocks or diagnostic injections may be employed to confirm the source of pain by temporarily numbing specific nerves in the neck. This helps differentiate cervicogenic headaches from other types of headaches like migraines or tension headaches. At times, collaborative efforts between neurologists, orthopedic specialists, and pain management experts are often necessary to establish an accurate diagnosis and develop an individualized treatment plan tailored to the patient’s needs and preferences.

Start your journey to a proper diagnosis starts with an experienced pain management doctor, as the type of pain that you may have with cervicogenic headaches can be similar to the symptoms of several types of head or neck disorders. The key to successful treatment is accurately determining the correct source of your pain.

Living with pain caused by cervicogenic headaches is a daily struggle and finding relief can be challenging. The highly skilled pain doctors at Pro Spine & Pain can get right to the source of your pain and provide treatment tailored to your needs. Stop letting pain run your life and request your appointment today.

Cervicogenic Headache Treatment

Treating this problem can involve a multifaceted approach aimed at addressing both the underlying cervical spine issues and managing the associated pain.

Here are some common cervicogenic headache treatment options:

  • Medications: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce inflammation and alleviate pain associated with cervicogenic headaches. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed to relieve muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. In some cases, tricyclic antidepressants or anticonvulsants may be used to help manage chronic pain.
  • Physical Therapy: Physical therapy can be effective in the treatment of cervicogenic headaches. Therapeutic exercises focusing on strengthening the neck muscles and improving flexibility can help alleviate pain and prevent future episodes. Manual therapy techniques such as massage, joint mobilization, traction, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may also be beneficial in relieving stiff neck muscle tightness and improving neck mobility.
  • Chiropractic Care: Chiropractic adjustments and spinal manipulation techniques can help realign the vertebrae of the cervical spine, reduce nerve irritation, and improve overall spinal function. Regular chiropractic adjustments may help alleviate pain and prevent recurrent cervicogenic headaches.
  • Interventional Procedures: Interventional techniques such as nerve blocks, trigger point injections, cervical epidural steroid injections, or cervical facet joint injections may temporarily relieve pain by numbing the nerves or reducing inflammation in the cervical spine.
  • Acupuncture and Dry Needling: Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on the body to help restore the flow of energy and alleviate pain. Another associated method is dry needling, distinct from acupuncture in that it targets painful areas and myofascial trigger points rather than standardized points. Research has shown these approaches to be effective in addressing both tension and cervicogenic headaches.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Adopting healthy lifestyle habits such as maintaining good posture, practicing stress management techniques, getting regular exercise, and ensuring adequate sleep can help reduce the frequency and intensity of cervicogenic headaches.
  • Surgery: In rare cases where conservative treatments fail to provide relief, you may be referred for surgical intervention. Surgical options may include fusion of cervical vertebrae, decompression surgery, or nerve decompression procedures to address structural abnormalities or nerve compression.

Overall, the treatment approach for cervicogenic headaches will be individualized based on the patient’s specific symptoms, underlying causes, and treatment goals. A multidisciplinary approach involving collaboration between healthcare providers such as neurologists, orthopedic specialists, pain management physicians, physical therapists, and chiropractors may be necessary to optimize outcomes and improve the quality of life for patients.

Updated on Apr 25, 2024 by Dr. Thomas Stauss (Pain Management) of Pro Spine & Pain

Thomas Stauss, MD

Thomas Stauss, MD, completed both his undergraduate and medical studies at the esteemed University of Wisconsin in Madison. Dr. Stauss values having access to a wide array of cutting-edge treatment options, ensuring effective relief for his patients' discomfort and a significant enhancement in their quality of life. More specifically, he specializes in utilizing implanted devices to manage chronic pain. Dr. Stauss’s primary objective is to uphold the dignity of each patient while delivering ethical and professional services.

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