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Where is my headache coming from?

Where is my headache coming from?

Do you suffer from headaches?

The most important skill in managing headaches is determining the actual cause of the headache and following through with the appropriate treatment, rather than merely treating the pain itself.  

One of the most common types of headaches – and one that responds well to physiotherapy - is called a cervicogenic headache. Before you surrender to pain medication as a way of life, read on.

What is a Cervicogenic Headache?

A cervicogenic headache is a headache that is caused by pain in the neck that refers to the head. The term “cervicogenic headache” was introduced in 1983 by a clinician who wrote about headaches that originated from the cervical spine.

Stiff joints in the upper neck and back are the primary cause of a cervicogenic headache. Joints should glide freely to provide pain-free movement of the neck.  If a joint or its surrounding ligaments or muscles become irritated, the joints can stiffen and cause pain to be referred into other areas. This occurs because the nerves that supply the upper neck also supply the skin overlying the head, forehead, jaw line, back of the eyes and ears. As a result, pain arising from structures of the upper neck may refer pain to any of these regions, thus causing a cervicogenic headache.

The reason that cervicogenic headaches are both common yet treatable is because stiff joints in the upper neck are often caused by everyday things, such as poor posture, an inappropriate sleeping position, or incorrect desk setup.


  • Poor posture
  • Stiffness of the joints in the neck and upper back
  • Muscle imbalances (muscle tightness + muscle weakness)
  • Previous neck trauma (ex: whiplash, sports injury)
  • Inappropriate desk setup
  • Inappropriate sleeping postures
  • A sedentary lifestyle
You can determine if you have a cervicogenic headache by a number of factors, but a common indicator is a constant and dull ache accompanied by neck pain or stiffness. Additionally, you may find that your pain reliever isn’t working the way that it used to.

  • Constant and dull ache
  • Slow onset with an unclear cause
  • May be present for days, weeks or even months
  • Stiffness or restricted movement of the neck
  • Pain is worse on one side
  • Pain radiates from the back to the front of the head
  • Headache can be eased when pressure is applied at the base of the skull
  • Headache worsened by sustained postures or certain neck movements
  • Possible dizziness, light-headedness or nausea

How a Physiotherapist Can Help

If you think you are suffering from cervicogenic headaches, contact a physiotherapist. A physiotherapist will carry out a full assessment of the neck and upper back to determine a treatment plan. Some of the treatments may include:

Joint Mobilizations – movement techniques that aim to restore pain-free joint range of motion and movement of the neck

Stretching – a stretching program to maintain the flexibility of the neck

Strengthening – neck problems are often linked with weakness of neck and back muscles. Your physiotherapist will help you strengthen these muscles

Some simple things that you can do at home to help improve your posture and decrease your cervicogenic headaches include the following:
  • Sit/stand up straight
  • Pull the shoulders back and down
  • Tuck your chin back slightly
  • Tuck your belly in
  • Stretch throughout the day and hold stretches for 30 seconds each

If you have a cervicogenic headache, apply ice to the base of the skull and lay down. Don’t go at it alone. Contact a physiotherapist to find improvement today!


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