What Is a Cervicogenic Headache?
A cervicogenic headache is a secondary headache that originates in the cervical spine (neck). The pain is referred from the neck up to the head. This type of headache can be difficult to diagnose. The source of pain originates in the neck; however, in some cases, pain is only felt in the head. Cervicogenic headaches can also mimic other types of headaches, such as migraines or tension headaches.
Cervicogenic headache pain may start at the back of the neck. It then extends up one side of the head, toward the forehead, temple, and areas around the eye and ear. The pain is moderate to severe and is usually described as steady, dull pain.
Other symptoms may include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Reduced range of motion in the neck
- Blurred vision in the eye on the affected side
- Pain in the shoulder or arm on the affected side
- Pain between the shoulder blades
- Sensitivity to light or sound
- Nausea or vomiting
Cervicogenic headaches are caused by an injury to the neck or a medical condition involving the neck. Most often, these injuries or conditions affect the upper cervical facet joints (the joints connecting vertebrae C1, C2, and C3 at the top of the spine). Other commonly affected parts of the neck include the vertebral discs, the neck muscles, and the cervical nerves.
Damage to the neck may be caused by an injury, such as a fall, a sports injury, or whiplash. Neck damage can also be caused by “wear and tear” due to aging or osteoarthritis.
Several factors may trigger a cervicogenic headache:
- Sitting or standing for long periods of time in a position with the head out in front of the body
- Falling asleep with the neck in an awkward position
- Sudden movement involving the neck, such as a cough or sneeze
Common risk factors for developing cervicogenic headaches include the following:
- Occupational hazards — Jobs that require holding the neck in the same position for long periods of time, e.g., hair stylists, truck drivers, or carpenters.
- Poor posture — Keeping the chin pushed forward with the head in front of the body can damage the neck, leading to cervicogenic headaches.
- Arthritis — Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis can cause neck damage, which may result in cervicogenic headaches.
- Athletic activities — Engaging in a sport that may cause a neck injury puts an individual more at risk. Weight lifting is also a risk factor.
- Female — More women than men develop cervicogenic headaches.