Are Your Headaches a Pain in the Neck?

There are many different types of headaches and just as many different reasons as to why they occur; fatigue, dehydration and hormonal imbalances to name a few. However, one of the most common types of headaches is a Cervicogenic Headache.

A Cervicogenic Headache is a pain experienced over the skull or face

that is referred from an injury in the neck.

An ‘injury’ could be as simple as neck stiffness from staring at a screen too long, or more complex such as whiplash from a car accident.

The How and Why

The nerves of the upper cervical spine are closely connected with the trigeminal nerve which supplies sensation to the head and face. A cervicogenic headache will occur when a neck injury irritates the upper cervical nerves, resulting in pain being referred to the skull and face via the trigeminal nerve.

What will I experience or feel like?

Cervicogenic headaches are typically one sided and located over the base of the head, temple, forehead or eye. The pain is a deep constant ache with varying periods of intensity. You may experience associated neck stiffness and restricted mobility. Your pain may worsen as a result of stress, neck movement, sustained neck postures or pressure applied to the base of the skull or the neck.

Less common symptoms you may experience include nausea, vomiting, light or sound sensitivity, dizziness, blurred vision, teary eyes or same sided neck and shoulder pain.

How can I help fix it?

In most cases a combination of manual therapy such as osteopathy, and gentle exercises will be sufficient to resolve your headache. Both management strategies aim to reduce neck muscle tension and increase your joint mobility to reduce the nerve irritation causing the referred pain. Osteopathic care aims to resolve the current headache, as well as correct any underlying mechanical strains that caused it. Taking time to rest, hydrate, breathe deeply and de stress also aids muscle relaxation and pain reduction.

At home you can relieve muscle tension by…

  • Gently massaging the muscles of your neck and at the base of the skull with your fingertips for 5 minutes.

  • Applying a heat pack to the back of your neck for 10 minutes at a time.

  • Stretching your neck muscles by tilting the neck first forwards and then sideways. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side.

  • Increasing mobility of your neck using slow and steady movements. First rotate to look over each shoulder and then tilt your ear to your shoulder. Repeat each movement 10 times on each side.

How long will I take to recover?

There is no definitive time frame for the resolution of symptoms as it is dependent upon the underlying cause of the injury to your neck. Pain resolution of an individual headache can occur within 1-2 days. However, resolving the underlying cause to prevent reoccurrence of your Cervicogenic headache can take longer and requires a thorough case history and physical examination.

Please don't hesitate to get in touch if you've got further questions.


Please be mindful that the information contained above is general in nature and is not intended to replace the direct care and instructions of your practitioner. If you have any questions about your diagnosis or the recommended treatment and management plan proscribed, please contact your practitioner who will be more than happy to discuss your case with you further.

1. Daroff, R., 2016. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Canada: Elsevier.

2. Biondi, D, 2005. Cervicogenic Headache: A review of diagnostic and treatment strategies.. The journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 105, 16-22.

Photos by Joel Mwakasege, Kinga Cichewicz & Clint McCoy on Unsplash

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