A cervicogenic headache is a headache disorder that affects an estimated 2.2% of the population. What makes a cervicogenic headache different from other headaches is that it is not truly a headache; it is actually a type of referred pain. Referred pain is when the body perceives pain in a location different from where the actual pain is. For example, sometimes when you hit your “funny bone” you may feel a pain in your shoulder. In this case, the headache pain is being referred from bones or soft tissues in the neck. The upper cervical spinal cord has many bundles of nerves that transfer sensation between the neck and the head, which allows for the referral of pain.
How Cervicogenic Headaches Are Diagnosed
Diagnosing a cervicogenic headache can be a difficult process. Though diagnostic criteria are established, often times the presenting patient’s symptoms are hard to tell apart from those of a migraine, tension headache, or other headache disorder. The approach to diagnosing a cervicogenic headache (and also treating it) is multi-disciplined. The diagnostic factors are:
- Usually, cervicogenic headaches are unilateral, meaning they start on one side at the back of the head, migrate towards the front, and sometimes cause arm pain.
- Misalignment, muscle spasms, or other cervical dysfunction during a manual exam.
- Headaches that occur when pressing on a trigger point in the neck or head.
- Sustained neck positions which aggravate the pain.
- X-rays and other imaging returns with normal results.
- Occasionally nausea and/or dizziness.
Some types of cervicogenic headaches cause bilateral pain, and the headache starts out as neck pain or the neck pain exists along with the headache. In this form, the pain is exacerbated by certain movements of the neck. This form of headache is more common in occupations like hair-dressing, truck driving, or carpentry.
Who Gets Cervicogenic Headaches?
Roughly 47% of the world’s population suffers from headaches, and it is estimated that 15-20% of those are cervicogenic. Some research suggests that adults with neck pain are more susceptible to cervicogenic headaches. It has also been noted that four times as many females as males get cervicogenic headaches. During an examination, a doctor will consider any history of trauma, as well as the age of the patient. Usually, younger patients (ages 10-13) have dysfunction in the lower cervical spine, whereas older patients tend to have dysfunction in the upper cervical spine.
How Are Cervicogenic Headaches Treated?
Like diagnosis, treatment should be multi-disciplined. Usually, it is a combination of posture adjustment, massage, physiotherapy, acupuncture, steroid injections, hydrotherapy, and medication. Most patients (70%) are pain-free within a month.
To learn more or to seek treatment, contact KCA Neurology in Franklin and Clarksville, TN at 615.550.1800.