A headache is a painful complex affecting 90% of the general population.
According to the International Headache Society (IHS), there are about 200 different causes of headaches. In many cases, the pain can be explained by a neck problem. In fact, a headache caused by a neck pathology (also referred to as cervicogenic headaches) can explain 15 to 20% of recurrent headachesand 53% of headaches following a car accident.
How can my neck explain the pain in my head?
Well, the answer to this question can become quite complex! Head pain caused by a neck problem is a phenomenon known as referred pain, which means that the symptoms are felt in a different place than the source of the problem. A very well known pathology of referred pain is a heart attack, where people often feel pain in the left arm and jaw.
This happens because our nervous system, which is responsible for taking information from our body and producing pain in the case of an injury, has similar pathways between both areas. Therefore, an injury to the neck can cause pain in the head!
How can I know if my neck is a source of headache?
A cervicogenic headache can manifest itself in different ways, but some features are more frequent. Here are the most significant ones:
- The headache is caused or influenced by stress in the neck, such as movement or prolonged posture.
- The headache is usually accompanied by neck pain and/or stiffness.
- The pain usually does not limit activities of daily life, such as walking, personal hygiene, etc.
These features are some of the most common ones, however, a healthcare practitioner should perform a more accurate diagnosis.
I think I might suffer from cervicogenic headaches. What can I do?
The very first thing to do is to consult a healthcare practitioner. As a professional of the neuro-musculoskeletal system as well as physical function, a physical therapist can help you in a multitude of ways. The first step is to determine the exact cause of the headache and, if the problem cannot be addressed with physical therapy, your therapist will refer you to another professional, such as your physician.
Once the diagnosis is made and the contributing factors are determined, physical therapy can be helpful to reduce the headaches by correcting the different causes of excessive stress in your neck. Different modalities commonly used in physical therapy have shown important improvement on headaches, neck pain and physical function for people suffering from cervicogenic headaches.
The most effective tools that we use include manual therapy (improving movement and decreasing pain and muscle spasms in the neck using our hands), strengthening and mobility exercises for the neck, postural correction as well as education. Studies using this kind of treatment have shown more than 75% improvement rate in just a few weeks!
About Jean-Philippe Paquin
Upon graduating from the University of Laval in 2010, Jean-Philippe Paquin went on to complete his master’s at Western University in 2014 and then became an FCAMPT the same year. In addition to his clinical practice in sports physiotherapy, he spends lots of time researching and teaching. Currently, Jean-Philippe is completing his master’s degree in Health Sciences, focusing on cervicogenic headaches and is also a full-time physical therapy professor at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.