What is a cervicogenic headache?

A cervicogenic headache is simply another name for a headache which originates from the neck and is one of the most common types of headache. It is important to note, however, that there are many types of headache of which cervicogenic is just one. Another common type is vascular (this includes migraines).



The spine (neck) comprises of many bones known as vertebrae. Each vertebra connects with the vertebra above and below via two types of joints: the facet joints on either side of the spine and the disc centrally.
During certain neck movements or sustained postures, stretching or compression force is placed on the joints, muscles, ligaments and nerves of the neck. This may cause damage to these structures if the forces are beyond what the tissues can withstand and can occur traumatically due to a specific incident or gradually over time. When this occurs pain may be referred to the head causing a headache. This condition is known as cervicogenic headache.


Cervicogenic headache typically occurs due to damage to one or more joints, muscles, ligaments or nerves of the top 3 vertebra of the neck. The pain associated with this condition is an example of referred pain (i.e. pain arising from a distant source – in this case the neck). This occurs because the nerves that supply the upper neck also supply the skin overlying the head, forehead, jaw line, back of the eyes and ears. As a result, pain arising from structures of the upper neck may refer pain to any of these regions causing a cervicogenic headache.
Although cervicogenic headache can occur at any age, it is commonly seen in patients between the ages of 20 and 60.


Causes of cervicogenic headache

Cervicogenic headache typically occurs due to activities placing excessive stress on the upper joints of the neck. This may occur traumatically due to a specific incident (e.g. whiplash or heavy lifting) or more commonly, due to repetitive or prolonged activities such as prolonged slouching, poor posture (figure 2), lifting or carrying (especially in poor posture), excessive bending or twisting of the neck, working at a computer or activities using the arms in front of the body (e.g. housework).


Signs and symptoms of cervicogenic headache

Patients with this condition usually experience a gradual onset of neck pain and headache during the causative activity. However, it is also common for patients to experience pain and stiffness after the provocative activity, particularly upon waking the next morning.

Cervicogenic headache usually presents as a constant dull ache, normally situated at the back of the head, although sometimes behind the eyes or temple region, and less commonly, on top of the head, forehead or ear region. Pain is usually felt on one side, but occasionally, both sides of the head and face may be affected.

Those with this condition often experience neck pain, stiffness and difficulty turning their neck, in association with their head symptoms. Pain, pins and needles or numbness may also be felt in the upper back, shoulders, arms or hands, although this is less common. Occasionally patients may experience other symptoms, including: light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, tinnitus, decreased concentration, an inability to function normally, and depression.

Those with cervicogenic headache typically experience an increase in symptoms during certain movements of the neck or sustained positions (e.g. driving or sitting at a computer in poor posture). Patients may also experience tenderness on firm palpation of the upper part of the neck just below the base of the skull along with muscle tightness in this region.


Diagnosis of cervicogenic headache

A thorough subjective and objective examination from a Chiropractor will be able to help you. Call our friendly front desk to book a consultation.

Occasionally, investigations such as an X-ray, MRI or CT scan may be required to assist diagnosis.