Headache is a catchall term for a pain in the head. However, not all headaches are the same or equal; they can vary in position, pain and duration. You should be aware of the different nature of your headaches. Last week we talked about tension headaches, this week let’s talk about cervicogenic headaches.
Cervicogenic headaches and what causes them
A cervicogenic headache (CH) differs from a tension headache in that the source of the problem stems from your neck. As such, different conditions can trigger this type of pain. These include degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis, a prolapsed disc in the neck, a compressed or pinched nerve or even a whiplash injury. A trauma such as a fall can also cause injury to the neck and trigger these headaches.
CH and poor posture
For the majority of people, cervicogenic headaches also occur as a result of poor posture while sitting or standing at work. Many people unknowingly push the chin forward which moves your head out in front of your body. This is known as “forward head motion”. Sitting or standing in this position for long periods of time can put pressure or stress on the upper back, the neck and base of the skull; all of which can trigger a cervicogenic headache. Falling asleep in an awkward position, e.g. with your head too far to the front or back, or off to one side can also cause this type of headache. This can happen if you sleep in a chair or while sitting up in bed and your head keeps lolling to one side. Sleeping with too many pillows causes an unnatural alignment of the spine which can find you waking up with a nasty headache.
What are CH symptoms?
This type of headache is characterized by a sharp jolt of pain that comes from the neck and which may radiate from the neck or back of the head up to the front of the head or behind the eye. This can be followed by an intense throbbing ache in your head although some people experience a persistent dull ache. You may also feel pain in your arm and shoulder.
Other symptoms of a cervicogenic headache are:
Pain on one side of your head or face; such as the back, front, or side of your head or your eye
A stiff neck
Pain while coughing or sneezing
A headache with certain neck postures or movement
A headache that can generally last several hours but could continue for several days
You may feel nauseous and throw up
You may feel sick or uncomfortable in bright light or with loud noises
Have blurry vision
Suffer reduced range of motion of the neck and the headache will intensify with certain movements of the neck or if pressure is applied to certain spots on the neck
The difference between Cervicogenic headaches and migraines
Some people who regularly suffer from cervicogenic headaches are also prone to migraines. It can be difficult to differentiate between CH and migraines as some of the symptoms can be similar. For example, both cervicogenic headaches and migraines can display symptoms such as light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, blurry vision and an upset stomach.
9 ways to manage and lessen the pain of a cervicogenic headache
A cervicogenic headache can be debilitating and recurrent. Treatments should target the cause of the pain in the neck. There are there are several ways to lessen and manage the pain and prevent further occurrences. These include:
1. Medication: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen, muscle relaxants, and other pain relievers may ease the pain.
2. Physiotherapy: Physical therapy and an ongoing exercise regimen often produce the best outcomes. Stretches and exercises can help and can strengthen weak neck muscles as well as improve the mobility of the joints. Work with a physiotherapist to find out what kind of exercise is the best and safest for you.
3. Osteopathy, massage therapy and acupuncture can all be effective methods of treating cervicogenic headaches.
4. Other options can include relaxation techniques, such as deep deep breathing exercises and yoga.
If you are in the grip of a cervicogenic headache, you can manage the pain by trying the following:
1. Avoid activities that worsen pain.
2. Apply ice or heat for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day.
3. Use a neck brace when sleeping upright to prevent bending your neck forward.
4. Be aware of good posture when sitting, standing, or driving (stand or sit tall with your shoulders back, and don’t lean your head too far forward).
5. Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep deep breathing and yoga.
Cervicogenic headaches can literally be a ‘pain in the neck’ …. and the head …. and the eye …. and the face. Unless you come to grips with the underlying cause of these vicious attacks on your well-being, you may be able to manage them and keep them at bay but you will not be able to beat them. Be aware of your triggers and gain the upper hand!
Miriam Lipshitz is the Back into Shape team IDD technician, clinical receptionist and blogger. She is a South African qualified and experienced teacher by profession with wide ranging experience in research and writing.