Cervicogenic Headache

What is it?

A cervicogenic headache is head pain which originates from the cervical spine. A complex musculoskeletal syndrome thought to be caused by abnormalities in the joints, muscles, fascia and nerves. Research suggests that this type of headache often goes untreated due to its often intermittent nature.


  • Prior neck trauma: any previous injury to the head or neck may predispose an individual to this type of headache, for example whiplash type injury as a result of a car accident. Improper management following these injuries could result in long term movement compensation patterns which could lead to chronic headaches.
  • Movement compensations: sustained postures associated with sitting at a computer for extended periods, playing computer games for extended periods, improper desk set up leading to forward head postures which increases the stresses on the joints ligaments and muscles leading to over activity. Repetitive movements of the head and neck can also lead to head pain, especially in jobs requiring excessive cervical extension (eg. painters)
  • Cervical joint dysfunction: joint stiffness and muscle weakness as a result of faulty movement patterns at work or in daily life. Imbalances can be developed over a long period causing weaknesses and poor muscular endurance in the cervical flexors and extensors.
  • Stress and tension due to work or home life can increase the tension on the neck and back musculature, which can increase the risk of sustaining headaches.

Signs and Symptoms

Diffuse dull ache which is typically located in the neck and occiput region, however in more chronic pain further referral into the forehead can occur. Pain experienced is usually unilateral (single side) and typically of gradual onset. A reduction in neck and shoulder range of motion is usually apparent. Individuals typically wake with a headache which can ease once up only to return later in the day. In the more chronic patient pain in the shoulder and arm may be apparent, however it doesn’t follow a typical distribution pattern.


Early management of this condition is essential, initial reduction of the aggravating activity is important to reduce the stress on the cervical spine. The following are self-management strategies, which can be adopted.

  • In the initial stages when pain is present you may benefit from heat application and some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDS). It may be beneficial (when appropriate) to lie down when you are suffering from a headache, this will allow the cervical muscles time to relax.
  • Initiation of flexibility and strengthening programmes for the cervical flexors and extensors
  • Correcting any posture issues, ensure your desk set up is unique to you to avoid any unnecessary postures.

What can Sports Injury Scotland do?

Sports massage and mobilisations have been found to be an effective method of reducing the pain associated with Cervicogenic headaches, increasing the mobility at the joints and improving the muscles strength and flexibility, will enable the individual to perform the necessary strengthening exercises which are essential to ensure adequate recovery. Postural re education is essential to ensure correct movement patterns in the future. Sports Injury Scotland will provide diagnosis and treatment of any musculoskeletal injury offering advice on not only the management of pain, but direction on how to avoid recurrence.