The medical term for a neck headache is a cervicogenic headache, a type of secondary headache caused by issues in the neck instead of the head. Twenty-four percent of all headache cases brought to doctors’ attention are secondary type headaches, according to researchers. Thankfully these headaches can be resolved by correcting the problem that is causing them.
What Causes Them?
Neck headaches can originate from various parts of neurovascular or musculoskeletal structures in your upper neck – within the upper three vertebrae (the C1, C2, and C3), neck muscles, and spinal cord coverings. When there is a problem in this area, it sends pain signals through the trigeminocervical nucleus in the brainstem. These messages are received by your brain via your brainstem and from there they are interpreted as a headache.
When neck joints are too stiff, move too frequently, or are stuck in an abnormal position, it can lead to a neck headache, or even in some cases, facial pain.
The Role of the Neck Muscles
Pain can sometimes begin in the neck when your neck muscles or shoulder blades are overworked, spasming, or knotted. The reason these muscles may become overworked is from protecting injured neck joints. In other cases, certain muscles in the neck can become weak from lack of use, putting a higher demand on the other muscles and causing fatigue-related symptoms. In order for the neck muscles to function optimally, they should have normal resting tension.
Occipital and Cervical Nerves
Bony growths from arthritis, disc bulges, or swelling can lead to pinched or irritated neck nerves. The pain messages get sent along the nerve pathways and can cause headaches. One way to think about it is as if your neck is the switch and your nerves are the electrical wires. When the wires light up is when the headache happens.
What Symptoms Are Associated with Neck Headaches?
These kinds of headaches can get confused with migraines since the symptoms are very similar. However, neck headache symptoms are not nearly as severe as a migraine’s. Here is a list of secondary headache symptoms:
- Tiredness at the top of the neck and base of the skull
- Neck stiffness or mild loss of motion in the neck
- Your headache seems to radiate from the back to the front of your head
- Your headache comes about or is made better by a particular movement of your neck
- Your headache is worse on one side of your head and is consistently worse on the same side; it does not switch sides
- Your headache is alleviated by applying pressure or massaging around your neck or the base of your skull
Correcting Your Posture
One simple way to help with a neck headache is to be intentional about improving your posture. Here are a few tips to get you started. First, examine your current posture by asking someone to take a picture of you from three different angles: front, back, and side. Look for the obvious signs of proper posture; your head and neck should be positioned over your body. Basically, you don’t want your forehead to be ahead of your chest, or your rear end to be sticking out behind you. See if you notice whether your hands hang evenly and if your hips are at the same level. You can use a free app like Posturezone to help you determine if your posture is correct. Always check in with your doctor or chiropractor before starting an exercise program.
- Alignment: Begin by standing up against a wall with your heels touching it and then take a step forward about the length of your foot. Next, lean back until your buttocks and back touch the wall. Push your head back (without tilting your chin up) until it is touching the wall. If you have trouble getting your head to touch the wall without tilting your head, simply push it back as far as you can while keeping it straight, then hold for 20 seconds. This helps strengthen your core muscles and trains them to support proper posture.
- Alignment in movement: Using an exercise ball, sit with your knees at a 90-degree angle and maintain your best, strong posture. Keep your knees, torso, and head still, and then very slowly move the ball in circles using your pelvis. Try three circles left, then three circles right. This can help you identify where you have neglected muscle fibers in your core.
- Balance: Stand in a doorway using good posture. Raise one leg, bending your knee until your thigh is parallel with the floor. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with the other leg. Do your best to avoid twisting or flailing your arms if you lose your balance. Instead, reach out for the wall to steady you. This exercise develops balance and symmetry of muscle control.
Getting the Help You Need for Your Neck Headache
If you choose the help of an upper cervical chiropractor, you may find exactly what you are looking for to relieve your neck headache. We are a unique niche of chiropractors who focus on the top bones of the spine. Misalignments in this area can lead to issues such as neck headaches and other headache types.
The gentle method we use never requires popping or twisting the spine to get results. Instead, we encourage the bones to return to their proper position, and by doing so we provide a longer-lasting adjustment. Most of our patients and those in case studies come back with reports of significant improvements in their headache issues after only one or two adjustments.
if you are outside of the local area you can find an Upper Cervical Doctor near you at www.uppercervicalawareness.com.