What in the World Are Cervicogenic Headaches?


The word cervicogenic is composed of two latin words:  The prefix cervico which means neck and the suffix -genic which means producing or causing.  Therefore, a cervicogenic headache is produced by structures in the neck.  Diagnosing this headaches is sometimes difficult because there is no real agreement by the health care community about what structures to include as causative agents of these headaches.  On a broader scale, if you include superficial neck muscles, tension headaches might be considered cervicogenic.  I tend to agree more with those who believe cervicogenic headaches are due to referral pain from deeper soft tissue and articular structures in the neck.  However, I always remind myself that conditions do not read text books and presentation may vary.


Daily headaches and restricted neck movement are common in patients with this kind of headache.   They have difficulty turning or tilting their head from side to side.   Some have to move their entire torso to look to the side.   Moving the head may sometimes exacerbate pain.  Neck pain is also typical.  Some patients tend to show evidence of  arthritis on film (X-Ray).


Your neck is composed of many structures.  Vertebrae stack upon one another, cushioned by articular cartilage and intervertebral discs to allow them to glide and move upon one another.  The shape of the vertebra (bone), the pliability intervertebral discs, the length of articular (joint) capsule and the surrounding ligaments collectively determine how the neck and head moves.  All of these structures are interrelated.  Even if some of them are not innervated (like cartilage), they can affect the rest of the surrounding structures (which are innervated) and produce pain as ligaments and small deep muscles get stretched while struggling to maintain correct direction of movement.  The small deep muscles also act as proprioceptors (receptors that tell the brain where your neck is in space) and can easily go into spasm.  All of this is just to tell you that pain can be produced from any structure deep in the neck.  “So what?” you might ask impatiently pondering where I am going with all this.

To begin with, pain deep in the neck can trigger more superficial and bigger muscles (trapezius, splenius capitis) to tighten suddenly to protect the deeper structures.  When they do, they can refer pain to the head especially if they already had trigger points.

Secondly, the nerves of the deep structures will send information to the brain via larger nerves that converge on the spinal cord.  The spinal cord has different sections that send information to the brain about our neck status and other areas in our body.  It also has sections that send information about the head and face.  One of them, the trigeminocervical nucleus (TCN), is located along the section of the spinal cord encased by neck structures.  Because of this convergence, the brain might interpret that some pain is coming from the head when it is really coming from the neck… and you have absolutely no say on how your brain interpret things.


The interestesting thing  is that cervicogenic headaches tend to respond amazingly well to chiropractic adjustments.  Chiropractic adjustments restore function to joints and all their components.   They induce correct movement of your neck.  Correct movement of your neck diminishes pain in the neck.   If pain is not transmitted to your spinal cord the brain does not have anything to misinterpret. With restored movement, your headaches should diminish in frequency and intensity and may become a thing of the past.

So if you suffer from headaches that don’t seem to go away and you have gone to other health care practitioners without much improvement, maybe you need to see a chiropractor.  Also, remember how I discussed that headaches can be interrelated on a previous post?  You should be able to practice all the behavioral modifications covered on my tension headaches post (https://nuchiro.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/what-can-you-do-about-tension-headaches/)  and see some improvement in your condition.

UP NEXT:  Cluster Headaches


About nuchiro

I graduated from National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, IL in 2005 with a Doctor of Chiropractic degree. I have also been a certified personal trainer since 1999. I believe that Total Wellness, of which physical fitness is only a part, can be achieved relatively easily when people focus on attaining a harmonious balance in the different aspects of their lives. For an appointment, feel free to contact me at dr.veaz@nuchiro.com .
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