Introduction to Cervicogenic Headaches
Headaches are highly prevalent and are associated with significant disease burden for the individual and the wider community. Headache disorders are ranked as the third most disabling condition in people aged under 50 years old in the Global Burden of Disease Study.
It is estimated that 46 percent of the adult population has Active Headache Disorder. Between 1.7 and 4 percent of the world’s adult population report having a headache on 15 or more days each month. While there are regional variations, headaches affect people from all ages, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds and geographical areas. The highest rates for headache are found in North America with 85 to 90 percent of people reporting that they have experienced a headache at some point in time.
There are many different types of headache, which are discussed in more detail here.
Headaches are grouped into three main areas:
- Primary headaches (e.g. migraine, tension-type headaches, and trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (including cluster headaches))
- Secondary headaches (e.g. cervicogenic headache)
- Neuropathies, facial pain and other headaches
Tension-type headaches (TTH) are very common. Lifetime prevalence in the general population ranges from 30 and 78 percent.
The cause of TTH is not known, but peripheral pain mechanisms are believed to play a role in episodic TTH, whereas central pain mechanisms are implicated in chronic TTH.
The ICHD-3 notes that "pericranial tenderness is easily detected and recorded by manual palpation".
Further information on TTH is available here.
Migraine also has a high prevalence and socio-economic and personal burden. It was ranked as the third most prevalent disorder in the world in adults aged under 50 years. in the Global Burden of Disease Study.
There are two major types of migraine:
- Migraine with aura
- Migraine without aura
Further information on migraine is found here.
Other more serious causes of headache include:
- Brain tumour
- Substance abuse
- Inflammatory disease
Primary headaches and serious causes of headaches are explained in the following video.
Cervicogenic headache (CGH) is a chronic secondary headache that originates in the cervical spine. It affects 2.5 to 4.1 percent of the general population. However, this figure rises to 15 to 20 percent of people who report headaches. There is evidence to suggest that it has a similar impact on the quality of life as migraine and episodic tension-type headache.
CGH is described by the ICHD-3 as "Headache caused by a disorder of the cervical spine and its component bony, disc and/or soft tissue elements, usually but not invariably accompanied by neck pain." Their full diagnostic criteria are available here.
CGH begins in the neck or occipital region and can refer to the face and head. The specific sources of CGH are any structures innervated by the C1 to C3 nerve roots, including:
- The upper cervical joints
- The upper cervical muscles
- Suboccipital muscles
- Trapezius (especially the upper fibres)
- The C2-3 disc
- The vertebral and internal carotid arteries
- The dura mater of the upper spinal cord and posterior cranial fossa
This referral of pain to the head from the neck can be explained by the convergence (overlap) of the trigeminal afferents and cervical afferents from the upper three cervical spinal nerves..
- The trigeminal nucleus caudalis descends down to C3 or C4. This nucleus borders the grey matter of the spinal dorsal horn (i.e. the trigeminocervical nucleus)
- The interneurons in the trigeminocervical nucleus enable sensory information to be exchanged between the upper cervical spinal nerves and the trigeminal nerve
- Through this exchange, nociceptive signals from the upper cervical spine can be referred to the areas supplied by the trigeminal nerve in the head and face
Most of this nociceptive information is exchanged through the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V). Thus, pain generated in the cervical spine will most likely refer to the temple, orbit and forehead.
There is also some exchange of sensory information with the maxillary division of cranial nerve V, so pain generated in the upper cervical spine can also be referred to the face.
Neck muscles can also refer pain to the head and face.
Distinguishing Headache Types
Despite clear criteria to classify cervicogenic headache, it is difficult to diagnose this condition. The following points can be helpful when trying to distinguish between migraine, tension-type headache and CGH.
Migraines also tend to be unilateral, but they can shift from side to side. Pain is more frequently in the frontal and temporal regions, although they can also be orbital. This means that there is some overlap with CGH.
Type of Pain
CGHs tend to be non-throbbing and often start in the neck.
Tension-type headaches are described as a pressing or tightening pain, of mild to moderate intensity.
Migraines are described as a pulsating headache.
Patients with CGH will more likely present with limited neck range of motion. Tension headache and migraines might present with sensitivity to light and sound (i.e. photophobia and phonophobia). Migraines may also have additional symptoms of nausea and vomiting, as well as visual changes (aura) and can be aggravated by activity.
The following table provides a summary of these points.
|Cervicogenic Headache||Tension-Type Headache||Migraine|
Occipital, orbital or frontal
Can feel like a headband
|Unilateral, but can shift sides
Frontal, orbital, temporal
|Pain type||Non-throbbing, usually starts in the neck||Dull or tightening, pressure||Throbbing, pulsating|
|Additional Symptoms||Reduced neck range of motion||Photophobia, phonophobia||Nausea, vomiting. visual changes (aura), photophobia, phonophobia|
In some instances, patients may be diagnosed with one type of headache (e.g. migraine or tension-type), but also have features of CGH. Thus, headaches are not always exclusive. Tension-type headaches can occasionally have some cervical components. And both migraine and tension-type headaches are often associated with neck pain (due to the convergence of the cervical and trigeminal nociceptive afferents in the trigeminocervical complex as discussed above).
Diagnosis of cervicogenic headaches is discussed in more detail here.
Certain red flag conditions can be associated with headache, including:
- Cranial artery dysfunction (i.e. cervical or carotid)
- Intracranial issues
- Upper cervical ligamentous laxity (i.e. transverse or alar ligaments)
Other red flags include:
- Sudden onset of a new, severe headache
- A worsening pattern of a pre-existing headache that occurs without any obvious predisposing factors
- Headache that is associated with fever, neck stiffness, skin rash, and with a history of cancer, HIV, or other systemic illness
- Headache associated with focal neurologic signs other than a typical aura
- A moderate or severe headache that is caused by cough, exertion, or bearing down
- New onset of a headache either during or after pregnancy
Red flags in relation to headaches and dizziness are discussed in more detail here.
Where red flags are present, a medical review is required.
- Headache disorders are highly prevalent and cause significant disability
- There are many different types of headaches. Some may respond to physiotherapy management, particularly those referring from the cervical spine
- Classifying and diagnosing headaches can be difficult despite the existence of classification systems
- Red flag conditions must be considered and ruled out prior to treatment
Further information on assessing and treating CGH can be found here.
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