September 16, 2015
Cervicogenic Headaches

Headaches affect the quality of life, are a nuisance, and the throbbing pain makes you want to lie down with your eyes closed. If you are prone to headaches, you already know how they can disarrange your schedule, mood, and take you away from important events and tasks such as a work appointment. Headaches are a symptom or a signal that all is not well. Headache triggers are many, including diet, lack of sleep, hormones, illness, drinking too much alcohol, stress, withdrawing from drugs or caffeine, and environmental changes. There are four common types of headache depending on location and symptoms

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches feel like stabbing pains in the eye. The headache may cause redness of the eyes, nasal congestion, and a runny nose. The pain may come and go several times a day, lasting from a few minutes to hours.

The Migraine

Migraines are throbbing or pounding pains felt on one side of the head, making one sensitive to light and sound. They can be severe, lasting for hours or days, and may lead to nausea and vomiting. Sometimes the pain can be so severe that you would need medical intervention.

Tension Headache

Usually, a result of stress, lack of sleep, and tiredness, a tension headache starts from the neck and back and moves up to the head, and feels like a tight band on the forehead. You can feel the pain in the

neck, eyes, and forehead. The pain can be mild, moderate to intense but usually goes away after adequate rest.

Cervicogenic Headaches

A Cervicogenic headache is a pain that's felt in the head, although it originates in the neck. It is a secondary headache because it is a symptom of an underlying problem such as a neck illness or injury.

Sometimes it's hard to diagnose cervicogenic headaches because they may have similar symptoms with migraines or tension headaches. However, cervicogenic headaches are accompanied by neck and back pains. The headache may start from the neck, move to the back of the head, then to the front. It may be felt on one or both sides of the face depending on the problem area.

What are the Symptoms of a Cervicogenic Headache?

  • Pain on the side of the head or face
  • A stiff or painful neck
  • Pain when moving the neck
  • Pain near the eyes
  • Pain on one side of the hand or arm
  • Sensitive to light and sound
  • Blurred vision
  • Headache when sneezing or coughing
  • Nausea, vomiting, and an upset stomach

As noted earlier, cervicogenic headaches may be confused with other types of headaches, but the primary symptom is the pain and stiffness around the neck area. Visiting a physician may help distinguish between migraine and cervicogenic headache.

What Causes Cervicogenic Headaches?

When suffering from cervicogenic headaches, the neck is the problem area. Usually, the pain is due to a problem with the vertebrae located at the top of the spinal cord called the cervical vertebrae, specifically the c2-3 vertebrae. Also, problems with the muscles, joints, and nerves around the neck may cause pain. Sometimes, there is no definite cause of the pain, but the usual causes include

A whiplash- This is an injury around the neck muscles. A forceful movement may damage bones, nerves, and muscles in the neck, resulting in pain. Fractures or any harm to the neck region may also cause pain.

Straining the neck- some types of work such as driving for long hours or salon work may strain the neck, leading to compressed nerves and neck pain. This type of pain usually goes away after rest, but it's advisable to take breaks between work to avoid the strain. People who hold their head forward can also suffer from headaches because of the extra weight or pressure exerted on the neck. Prolonged neck strain can lead to permanent damage to the upper spine muscles and nerves.

If you sleep with the head awkwardly positioned too far from the front or back of the neck or sideways, you may suffer from a compressed nerve leading to a cervicogenic headache.

Tumors- a tumor can compress and alter the shape of bones and muscles around the neck region. It also blocks blood flow to the neck and may result in disc misalignment, leading to excruciating cervicogenic headaches.

Arthritis- When suffering from arthritis of the upper spine, the nerves and bones near the neck region may compress, causing pain and a stiff neck.

Infections- infections, diabetes, and high blood pressure may lead to the pain

How Do You Get Rid of a Cervicogenic Headache?

The critical point is knowing the cause of the headache. As mentioned earlier, cervicogenic headaches are referred to as pain, meaning that you can't treat them without addressing the root cause. Sometimes, it's easy to tell, like when you slept in the wrong position or had an injury to the neck, but it's not always easy. The headache may go away after the problem has

resolved, such as a compressed nerve from an awkward sleeping position. Still, if it's a more serious cause, such as the degeneration of spine muscles, you may require medical intervention.

How long do Cervicogenic headaches last?

Cervicogenic ache is usually a dull pain that may go on for hours or days without relief. It may worsen depending on the cause, meaning that it's impossible to tell how long the pain may last. The headache may last for as long as it takes to treat the primary cause.

Is Cervicogenic Headache Serious?

The headaches may be dull but manageable pain, but it all depends on the extent of muscle or nerve damage on the neck. The pain you feel after whiplash may be different from that of a slightly pinched nerve. If you experience a sudden and excruciating headache, seek medical attention. Also, if the headache is accompanied by dizziness, call your doctor immediately.

When Should You See the Doctor?

Most headaches resolve themselves within hours or days, but cervicogenic headaches may not go away because they result from musculoskeletal disorders that may need attention. However, when the ache lasts for more than a week, doesn't go away even after taking over-the-counter pain medications, or it's escalating, consult a doctor. Here are things you ought to tell the doctor during the diagnosis

  • Where you feel the pain
  • How long you've had the pain
  • Any current or previous medical issues
  • Any drugs you are taking
  • If you have fallen or had an injury to your neck, head,
  • or any other part of your body
  • If there is a specific trigger to the pain
  • If you have a fever or rash
  • If there are specific neck movements that trigger the pain

Your doctor may feel/press different parts of your neck to check whether they are painful and request you move the neck in different directions during the physical exam. He may also suggest an MRI, X-ray, or a scan that gives a clear picture of the head, neck, and upper spine anatomy. He may also request blood tests to rule out the presence of an infection.

The doctor may also suggest a numb block, a procedure that puts numbing medication on specific nerves at the back of your head. If the pain resides or completely goes away, then it's ruled out that nerve problems cause the headache. A numb block is not only a way of diagnosing the problem but can also be used to treat headaches. It's after analyzing the results of the tests that the doctor may prescribe an appropriate treatment plan, which may include

Physical Therapy

Together with a certified physical therapist, the doctor may recommend specific exercises that stretch and help the muscles relax. The therapy may include postural modifications, upper spine manipulation, and therapeutically exercise. The therapists may also recommend some activities

such as a SNAG (sustained natural apophyseal glide) that can be carried out at home to increase blood flow to the neck region and reduce stiffness.

You may also want to practice a good posture when sitting or carrying out tasks, use a neck brace when sleeping, and avoid any activity that worsens the pain. Also, avoiding propping your head too high when sleeping as it may strain the neck. Spinal manipulation, although quite effective, should only be carried out by an expert.

Medication

The doctor may recommend certain medications together with physical therapy. The first step should be to alleviate the pain by using prescribed pain medication such as aspirin, ibuprofen, muscle relaxers, and corticosteroid. Surgery is only recommended as a last resort. If all other treatment options have failed, and the pain is excruciating, surgery to release pinched nerves may help the muscles relax.

How to Prevent or Manage the Pain

A successful diagnosis pinpoints possible causes of headaches. For instance, the doctor can tell whether a bad posture while working is straining the neck muscles and advise better sitting and sleeping postures. Through the imaging tests, nerve and muscle degeneration may be detected and the appropriate cause of action recommended. These may include relaxation techniques such as meditation, exercise, and yoga. Relaxation increases blood flow to the muscles and nerves, which escalates the healing process.

Cold and hot treatments on the specific pain areas may help manage the pain and promote blood flow. Wrap ice cubes with a towel, then place on the neck as you gently massage the area for 20 minutes, then replace with a hot wrap for another 20 minutes. Repeat the process several times daily. Professional massage may also help, especially after a long day at work. When the pain results from degeneration of neck and spinal cord muscles, apart from taking pain medication, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle may help stop or slow down the process. Also, drink more water, eat more fruits and vegetables, and avoid unhealthy habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Excessive alcohol consumption numbs or destroys spinal nerves which speed up the degeneration process. Osteoarthritis and muscle degeneration may not be preventable, but the pain is manageable through physical therapy and pain medication.

Cervicogenic headaches are treatable, but it all depends on the cause. It's essential to have a medical diagnosis when you have recurrent headaches. If not treated, the pain can get worse, or the neck condition deteriorates.

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