Article by John Miller
What's Causes Cervicogenic Headache?
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.