Your neck headache originates from a variety of musculoskeletal and neurovascular structures. These structures include the upper three neck joints, C2/3 disc, spinal cord coverings, and neck muscles. Dysfunction in these areas can trigger pain signals that travel to your trigeminocervical nucleus (TCN) in your brainstem. This information is then transmitted into your brain and interpreted as a headache (Bogduk 2003).
Upper Neck Joints
The most likely source of your neck headache is a dysfunction of your upper neck joints. Your neck muscles or nerves become involved from pain signals that travel to your trigeminal nucleus in your brainstem, where you interpret the pain signals as a neck headache.
The most common cause of a neck headache is the dysfunction of your upper three neck joints. The most common neck joints involved are your:
atlantooccipital joint (O-C1),
Atlanto-axial joint (C1/2), and
C2/3 cervical spine joints.
In simple terms, your neck joints can cause a neck headache or pain if they are either too stiff or move too much (e.g. wobbly and unsupported by weak muscles) or locked in an abnormal joint position, e.g. a locked facet joint or poor neck posture. Once your neck joint becomes stressed and painful, the pain signals refer to the trigeminocervical nucleus in your brainstem. You start to feel a neck headache or, in some cases, face pain!
Your neck and headache physiotherapist can assess and correct neck joint dysfunctions that result in a neck headache. Their professional diagnosis and treatment are essential for neck headache sufferers.
Your neck and shoulder blade muscles that originate from your neck will cause pain if they are overworking, knotted or in spasm. Some of your neck muscles overwork when protecting injured neck joints. Other neck muscles become weak with disuse—this further demands your overworking muscles resulting in muscle fatigue-related symptoms. Your deep neck flexors are frequently weak or lack endurance. Your neck muscles work best when they have healthy resting tension, length, strength, power and endurance.
Your skilled physiotherapist assesses and helps you correct any muscle imbalances that result in a neck headache.
Cervical and Occipital Nerves
Nerves in your upper neck may become pinched by extra bony growths, e.g. arthritis, disc bulges or swelling. The results can result in nerve irritation or a reduction in the neural motion known as neuromechanosensitivity or abnormal neurodynamics. Irritation of your upper neck structures refer to pain messages along the nerves and cause your headache. In simple terms, your neck is the "switch", nerves are the "power cords", and your headache is where the "light" comes on.
Your headache physiotherapist can assess your neuromechanosensitivity.
Quality neck physiotherapy can have a speedy and effective result for relieving your neck headache—the key to better treatment response in confirming your diagnosis. After your assessment, your physiotherapist will start you with treatment techniques that address your problems.
Your neck headache treatment may include all or some of the following techniques:
Stiff neck joints may need to be loosened or unlocked via joint mobilisation (gentle gliding techniques), joint traction or, in specific cases, a gentle and localised joint manipulation technique.
Provide helpful advice on preventing neck dysfunction in the future, e.g. workstation setup, ergonomics, awkward neck positions and postures to avoid.
Who Treats Cervicogenic Headaches?
In addition to relieving your neck headaches, your physiotherapist aims to address why you are experiencing neck headaches. After all, helping you to avoid future neck headaches is a crucial component of your rehabilitation. Chronic headache sufferers typically resolve their neck headaches within days or weeks.
Relief of your neck headache is quite often immediate! If a neck headache solely causes your trouble, it is common to experience instant relief as you walk out of the clinic.
Depending on the severity and the specific underlying causes of your neck headaches, most sufferers will experience a reduced headache after your initial consultation.
For more information, please consult your neck headache physiotherapist.
Unfortunately, in a small percentage of patients, there is a sinister cause of your head pain, which require investigation. We call these Red Flags because they can be vital signs of more sinister underlying conditions such as brain tumours, aneurysm, stroke, meningitis and other systemic illnesses. If you experience any of the following symptoms, please seek the urgent advice of your healthcare professional.
You MUST thoroughly investigate any Red Flags!
Please check with your doctor to investigate further if your headaches have any of the following characteristics. Your headache is:
History your worst ever headache or a different headache to your usual.
Exertion triggers your headache (e.g. exercise, cough, sneeze or sex).
Age is higher than 50 years.
Despite treatment, your headache persists.
Central nervous system findings. e.g. motor weakness, memory loss, slurred speech.
HIV or another immune system compromise
fEver or other systemic symptoms, e.g. weight loss, rash.
If you have any of the above HEADACHE Red Flags symptoms, we strongly recommend that you consult your doctor immediately.
Less Urgent & Severe Headache Types
Fortunately, most headaches do not require urgent medical investigation and should respond positively to treatment depending upon an accurate diagnosis.
For specific advice, please consult your doctor or headache physiotherapist.