Do you suffer from chronic dull headaches? Does the pain typically develop on one side of your head, neck or face? If so, you may be struggling with what’s known as a cervicogenic headache. These types of headaches are caused by an issue in the neck area, which can make them hard to treat unless you understand how neck issues can lead to symptoms in your face or head.
Luckily, physical therapists understand these pain pathways and can help restore function in your neck, leading to a resolution of your cervicogenic headaches. In today’s blog, we explain why physical therapy can be the perfect solution if you’re frequently plagued by cervicogenic headaches.
What Are Cervicogenic Headaches?
As we touched on in the introduction, cervicogenic headaches are considered a secondary headache because the cause of the head pain is housed in a different location – the neck. In your upper cervical spine is a structure called the trigeminocervical nucleus, which is an area of convergence for sensory nerve fibers. One of the nerves in this area is the trigeminal nerve, and it helps to relay pain signals to the face, forehead, eyes and temple areas. When a pain sensation from a cause of cervicogenic headaches is relayed to the upper spinal nerves, it gets transferred along to the trigeminal nerve in the trigeminocervical nucleus, which is then expressed as pain in your head, face and forehead.
It may sound a bit complex, but because there are a lot of nerves in the upper neck region, irritation of these nerves can send signals down different neural pathways that result in pain sensations along the trigeminal nerve and headache onset. A number of different problems in the neck region can lead to the expression of a cervicogenic headache, including:
- Facet Joint Dysfunction – The facet joints in your C1-C3 vertebrae are the leading source of cervicogenic headaches. These vertebrae handle a lot of stress as you move your head and neck, and if repetitive or acute trauma damages these joints, nerve irritation can occur.
- Atlanto-Occipital Joint Dysfunction – Trauma or degeneration to the joint where the occipital bone connects with your first cervical vertebrae can lead to cervicogenic headaches.
- Disc Shifting – A bulging or herniated disc in the upper cervical spine can lead to the onset of cervicogenic headaches.
- Soft Tissue Damage/Weakness – Problems with the neck muscles can lead to nerve issues and headaches.
- Arthritic Degeneration – Damage to neck joints caused by arthritic degeneration can also cause headaches in older populations.
Treating Cervicogenic Headaches With Physical Therapy
Although the underlying cause of your headache may not be clear at the outset, a simple diagnosis at the hands of a medical professional can help lead you to down the right treatment plan, which for cervicogenic headaches is typically physical therapy. If you’re concerned about your headaches or want to put a stop to them, connect with your primary care physician or head right to a physical therapist’s office.
With the help of a physical exam, talking with you about your symptoms and possibly some diagnostic imaging, your provider can begin to key in on the reason for your headaches. If they believe that an issue with the nerves in the upper cervical spine are to blame, they’ll refer you to a physical therapist.
Physical therapy is considered the gold standard for cervicogenic headaches because it can attack the issue in multiple ways. Our team can help to develop physical therapy exercises that strengthen nearby structures to take pressure off a disc that could be irritating a nerve, or we can help stabilize and improve soft tissue health in your neck so muscle weakness isn’t causing your cervicogenic headaches.
Our team is also well-versed in what’s known as manual manipulation therapy, in which the therapist gently maneuvers your head and neck region to help with a number of different factors, including strength, flexibility, range of motion and alignment. Careful manipulation can relieve pressure on joints and alleviate muscle tension that could be contributing to your cervicogenic headaches.
Finally, we can set you up with some joint mobilization techniques that you can perform from the comfort of your home to help keep your neck and spine joints healthy long into the future. Joint issues are the leading cause of cervicogenic headaches, so keeping the joints flexible and healthy is a must if you want to keep headaches at bay down the road.
For more information about cervicogenic headaches, or to see if your head pain is being caused by an issue in your neck, reach out to the team at OrthoRehab Specialists today at (952) 922-0330.
- 3 Signs That Your Sciatica Would Respond Well To Physical Therapy - February 2, 2023
- What To Expect From Physical Therapy After Spine Surgery - January 30, 2023
- 4 Treatments To Consider If You’re Dealing With Fibromyalgia - January 25, 2023