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  • Paige Forsthoff, SPT

Q&A: Cervicogenic Headaches

What is a cervicogenic headache?

“Cervico-” means neck. “-genic” means originating from or produced by. A cervicogenic headache is a headache caused by musculoskeletal dysfunction in the neck.

What are the most common causes?

Muscle tension/spasm

Joint or nerve irritation/inflammation

Ligament sprain

Bony abnormalities

What are the risk factors?

Poor posture

Prolonged or repetitive head movements

Current or previous neck injury (ie: whiplash, direct trauma, damaged/herniated disc)

Osteoarthritis/rheumatoid arthritis

Stress, fatigue, or sleeping difficulty

What are the symptoms?

Neck stiffness and/or tenderness with pain that primarily radiates into the back, top, or side(s) of the head. Pain may be constant or intermittent, and is typically one-sided and non-throbbing in nature. Certain head positions and movements may aggravate symptoms.

Do other types of headaches present similarly?

Yes. There are various types of headaches, all with different causes. Unfortunately a lot of them have characteristics similar to cervicogenic headaches, which makes diagnosing difficult. The two most common misdiagnoses are:

Migraines – one-sided, moderate-severe throbbing pain; may be associated with vision changes, light/sound sensitivity, and nausea/vomiting

Tension headaches – diffuse, mild-moderate dull/aching pain; described as a “tight band” across the forehead; often triggered by stress

Is imaging (x-ray, CT scan, MRI) used for diagnosis?

Rarely. A diagnosis is usually made after an examination by your physician or physical therapist.

How can physical therapy help?

Great news! The majority of patients with cervicogenic headaches achieve symptom relief with physical therapy as a conservative treatment. Your PT sessions will consist of hands-on therapy that includes stretching, soft tissue massage, and joint mobilization, as well as strengthening exercises and education on body mechanics and posture.

If you have been diagnosed with a cervicogenic headache or are having other neck related issues, contact Eugene Katsnelson, PT, DPT at 201.468.0282 to schedule an appointment!

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