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What is a Cervicogenic Headache and How to Treat its Symptoms

Did you know that certain neck movements can cause a headache? Headaches that start when you move your neck a certain way are known as cervicogenic headaches.

This article will describe what a cervicogenic headache is, its causes, and how it can be treated.

What is a Cervicogenic Headache?

Cervicogenic headaches are a type of secondary headache. Secondary headaches are caused by an underlying condition such as extremely high blood pressure, infections, or neck injuries. For this reason, secondary headaches are different from primary headaches. Examples of primary headaches are migraines and cluster headaches. Cervicogenic headaches can be confused with migraines and tension headaches because migraines and tension headaches can also cause neck pain.

The pain from a cervicogenic headache starts in your neck and the back of your head and then spreads toward the front of your head or face. These headaches usually affect only one side of your head.

If you are experiencing a cervicogenic headache, you are likely to feel pain in various areas of your head, face, and upper body. There may be pain, stiffness, and a reduced range of motion in your neck or pain in your eye, shoulder, or arm on the affected side. Certain neck movements and positions may set off your head pain. Cervicogenic headaches can also involve nausea, blurred vision, or sensitivity to light and sound.

What Causes a Cervicogenic Headache?

Structural problems in your neck can cause Cervicogenic headaches. These structural problems often involve problems with the vertebrae at the top of your spine, namely the C2-3 vertebra. These are known as cervical vertebrae.

You may develop cervicogenic headaches if you have a job that requires frequent neck straining, such as hairstylists, manual laborers, and drivers.

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause cervicogenic headaches. These include:

How Can a Cervicogenic Headache be Treated?

The treatments available for cervicogenic headaches are meant to treat the pain, not reduce the frequency of recurring headaches. The treatment that is right for you depends on the severity of your headaches.

Your doctor may suggest prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medication to relieve your symptoms. Examples of OTC medications that may be useful are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Medications that can treat cervicogenic headaches but require a prescription from your doctor include muscle relaxers, anti-seizure medications, and antidepressants.

Since cervicogenic headaches are often caused by a structural problem in your neck, physical therapy is an effective treatment method. You and your physical therapist will work together to come up with a specific treatment plan. Your physical therapist will first identify the source of the pain. Your treatment may involve stimulation of the soft tissue and movement of the joints. A specific exercise your physical therapist may teach you is sustained natural apophyseal glide (SNAG). For this exercise, you use a towel to manipulate the parts of your neck where you feel pain. You can do SNAG at home on your own.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a treatment in which small electrodes are placed on your skin. These electrodes send small electrical signals that stimulate nerves near the area where you feel pain. Unfortunately, the relief you may get from TENS will not usually last very long.

If you experience chronic cervicogenic headaches, radiofrequency ablation (also known as radiofrequency neurolysis) may help. During this procedure, your doctor will use radio waves to heat the tip of a needle and then insert the needle into the nerve where your pain is stemming from. The heat from the needle will deaden the nerve and interrupt its ability to send pain signals to your brain.

Your doctor can inject the nerves and joints in your head and neck with pain-numbing medication. These are called nerve blocks. Nerve blocks can also help determine the source of your pain.

Neuromodulation is a surgical procedure in which electrodes are placed on the back of your head or neck. These electrodes are then connected to a pulse generator using a small wire. This procedure stimulates the occipital nerve that runs from the top of your spine to your head. This treatment is usually used if other treatments have not provided relief.

There are a number of pain relief exercises you can try at home. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, and relaxation regimes are a few home remedies you can try.

IV (intravenous) vitamin therapy is another treatment option for cervicogenic headaches. IVs deliver pain relief more quickly than oral medications because the ingredients in the IV bag do not have to go through your digestive system before they can take effect.

Now that you know the definition, causes, and treatments for cervicogenic headaches, you can move forward with trying to find relief.

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