Symptoms, Causes & Treatment of Cervicogenic Headaches

Symptoms, Causes & Treatment of Cervicogenic Headaches

Do you remember the times you mentioned to a friend, colleague or family member that “I feel a headache coming on?” If your answer is yes, then you are one of millions of people who have experienced the throbbing and sometimes extremely painful sensation of a headache.

Getting a headache is not only painful, but also disruptive because it interferes with your ability to focus or concentrate on tasks and can even make it difficult for you to fall asleep. To put into perspective the impact that headaches can have on our lives, headaches and migraines are among the most common disorders of the human nervous system worldwide. [1]

While there are many types of headaches whose onset of discomfort can originate from a variety of causes, this article will focus on the unique nature of cervicogenic headaches.

Deconstructing Cervicogenic Headache

What is commonly referred to as a “neck headache,” research has proven that the point of origin of cervicogenic headaches (CGH) occur in the upper cervical spine or soft tissues of the neck. Discomfort from a CGH can spread to the frontal-temporal areas of the head, which results in feeling the secondary effects of this painful condition.

Cervicogenic Headache vs Migraine

Cervicogenic headache is referred pain (pain perceived as occurring in a part of the body other than its true source) perceived in the head from a source in the neck. Cervicogenic headache is a secondary headache, which means that it is caused by another illness or physical issue. [2] It’s important to note that the pain associated with a cervicogenic headache is not the same as experiencing a migraine headache, as these two types of headaches are distinctly different.

Distinguishing CGH from migraine headaches is evidenced in the fact that the biggest difference between a cervicogenic headache and migraine headache is that the former is a secondary headache and the latter is a primary cause. Cervicogenic headaches are caused by an underlying health issue; migraines are not. [3] In addition to understanding the distinct nature of a CGH, it is equally important to know how to identify symptoms associated with this type of headache.

Symptoms of Cervicogenic Headache

Woman suffering neck pain due to bad posture

Woman suffering neck pain due to bad posture

People who suffer from cervicogenic headaches will experience a variety of symptoms, ranging from pain on one side of the head or face or mild to severe pain that occurs in the neck, shoulders and arms. It is vitally important to be mindful of CGH symptoms and take appropriate steps to alleviate the debilitating effects associated with this painful condition.

In most cases, cervicogenic headaches develop on one side of the head, starting from the back of the neck and radiating toward the front. [4] Additional symptoms of CGH include:

  • Reduced range of motion in the neck
  • Pain on one side of the face or head
  • Pain of the neck
  • Pain around the eyes
  • Pain in the shoulder, or arm on one side
  • Head pain that is triggered by certain neck movements or position
  • Sensitivity to light or noise
  • Nausea
  • Blurred vision

Contributing Factors and Causes of CGH

There are a variety of causes from this condition that impact the ability of people to live without discomfort. While stress or injury to the neck or spine are primary causes that can ignite symptoms of cervicogenic headaches, there are numerous other causes that contribute to CGH.

The three chronic causes are:

  1. Poor posture: Chronic compression of or pressure on the cervical spine can cause pain in the occipital nerve.
  2. Weak neck muscles: Muscles that cannot properly support the head or maintain the stability of the neck during movement may lead to cervicogenic headaches.
  3. Disc damage: Arthritis, age, or injury can damage the cervical vertebrae. Improper healing or bone growth can put pressure on the nerves in the neck and cause pain.

In addition to the above causes, additional risk factors include: [5]

  • Smoking: Smoking increases the pace of disc degeneration and can cause pain in the entire musculoskeletal system, including the cervical spine.
  • Age: Older people are at risk due to natural wear and tear.
  • Occupation: Those who work at jobs where long periods of sitting occur are at risk, as are those with high-impact occupations where injury is common (e.g. professional sports, some types of construction, commercial fishing, etc.).
  • Poor sleep: Poor quality of sleep due to poor sleep posture is a risk factor for this type of headache.

Physiotherapy and Treatment of CGH

Physiotherapy has proven to be an effective method of treatment for alleviating cervicogenic headaches.

Patients who seek the expertise of a Physiotherapist for CGH will be introduced to a variety of treatment methods that can be beneficial during the rehabilitative process.

In addressing ways in which physiotherapists provide treatment for people suffering from CGH, the Australian Physical Therapy Association presents the following treatment options [6]:

  1. Education, advise and assurance – This is to ensure the person understands the nature of their headache, is assured of its benign nature, and has the knowledge to actively participate in the care of their neck.
  2. Manual Therapy – This is an effective treatment method used to help the headache, neck pain and any associated symptoms
  3. Exercise – These exercises are prescribed depending on your requirements, and are designed to:
    • Ease pain
    • Improve posture and postural habits
    • Improve movement and flexibility of the neck
    • Train the supporting muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle
    • Train strength and endurance of the neck muscles
    • Train balance, movement accuracy, as well as head and eye movement control when light-headedness or unsteadiness are symptoms of the headache disorder.
  4. Advice for work and home – Prolonged and awkward postures, as well as poor lifting and carrying techniques will aggravate the neck pain and headache. Your physiotherapist works with you to develop best work, activity and lifestyle habits to relieve unnecessary strain on the neck.
  5. Self-management program – It is important to care for your neck to help prevent recurrent headaches. Your physiotherapist will work with you to devise a program of simple and convenient exercises and lifestyle habits relevant to your needs. It is best to try to include them into daily routines so that good neck postures and movement become normal habits. A plan will be developed to help manage and rapidly settle any future flares of headache and neck pain rapidly.

The above treatment protocols highlight the essential role physiotherapists play in educating and providing rehabilitative treatment for sufferers of cervicogenic headaches. Even though there are tremendous benefits to initiating a rehabilitative program for CGH with a physiotherapist, another key benefit from getting professional treatment is that people can create their own program for self-managed care.

Don’t Let CGH Keep You Sidelined

The fact that cervicogenic headaches can be painful and cause a great deal of discomfort, people don’t have to feel helpless in thinking nothing can be done. Once diagnosed, sufferers of CGH can get the help they need from a licensed physiotherapist who has the knowledge and expertise in devising a method of treatment that is unique for your recovery.


  1. Headache and migraine – Statistics & Facts | Statista
  2. Cervicogenic Headache | American Migraine Foundation
  3. What Causes Cervicogenic Headaches … – Doctors Health Press
  4. Cervicogenic headache: Symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment
  5. What Are Cervicogenic Headaches? – Pain Doctor
  6. Australian Physiotherapy Association