The Upper Cervical Spine and Cervicogenic Headaches
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Headache Assessment
- 3 Treatment
- 4 Summary
- 5 References
Cervicogenic headache (CGH) is a chronic secondary headache that originates in the cervical spine. The headache 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.
When assessing and treating patients with CGH, it is important to be able to clearly identify the symptomatic area in the upper cervical spine. Areas to assess are the:
- Occipito-atlantal (OA) joint (C0-1)
- Atlanto-axial (AA) joint (C1-2)
- C2-3 joint
- Suboccipital muscles
- Intensity of headaches
- Frequency of headaches
- Duration of headaches
- Range of motion testing
- Deep neck flexor endurance testing
- Palpation and joint mobility testing
Common clinical methods for assessing cervical spine mobility include:
- Flexion rotation test
- Active cervical range of motion
- Passive accessory inter-vertebral movement and physiological inter-vertebral movement
- Active cervical flexion test
- Myofascial trigger points assessment
- Ischaemic pressure tolerance test
- Cervical proprioception assessment
It is essential to screen for red flags and serious conditions in any assessment of the cervical spine.
Specific red flags in relation to headache are:
- Sudden onset of a new, severe headache
- A worsening pattern of a pre-existing headache in the absence of any clear predisposing factors
- Headache that is associated with fever, neck stiffness, skin rash, and with a history of cancer, HIV, or other systemic illness
- Headache that is associated with focal neurologic signs other than a typical aura
- Moderate or severe headache triggered by cough, exertion, or bearing down
- New onset of a headache during or following pregnancy
Serious conditions include:
- Cranial artery dysfunction
- Cervical artery
- Carotid artery
- Intracranial issues
- Upper cervical ligament instability (see below):
- Transverse ligament
- Alar ligament
Upper Cervical Ligament Instability
Upper cervical ligament instability has a prevalence rate of 0.6 percent, but it is more common in patients with inflammatory arthritis (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis). Despite low prevalence rates in the general population, it is important to screen for these conditions.
The transverse ligament enables the atlas to pivot on the axis. It holds the atlas in its correct position in order to prevent spinal cord compression during neck and head flexion.
Use of the sharp purser test is, however, considered contentious due to its potential to cause harm (i.e. a positive sharp purser test involves compressing the spinal cord via the dens of C2 and then performing a manoeuvre to decrease pressure on the spinal cord. This could be unsafe in high-risk populations). While there is currently no evidence to suggest that this test is harmful, there is a lack of evidence on its use in high-risk populations. It also demonstrates inconsistent validity and poor inter-rater reliability.
Other tests include the transverse ligament stress test. This test has high enough specificity to rule in patients with upper cervical spine instability. However, when Hutting and colleagues looked at a range of instability tests, they concluded that it is not currently possible to accurately screen for upper cervical instability.
The alar ligaments act to stabilise the cervical spine but can be damaged following trauma. It is important that they are assessed, particularly in patients who have neck dysfunction following injury. The gold standard test is MRI, but when this is not available, there are a number of clinical tests that can be used, including:
- Side-bending stress test
- Rotation stress test
- Lateral shear test
In a recent study, the sensitivity and specificity of these tests were found to range from 80. to 85.7 percent and 69.2 to 90.9 percent, respectively. Positive and negative likelihood ratios ranged from 2.6 to 9.41 and 0.15 to 0.26, respectively. These figures indicate that these tests are only of small-to-moderate clinical diagnostic value. However, when used as a cluster of tests, the sensitivity and specificity were to 85.7 percent and 100 percent, respectively if more than two tests were positive. Likelihood ratios improved to infinity (positive likelihood ratio) and 0.15 (negative likelihood ratio). These ratios indicate that this cluster of tests has moderate-to-excellent clinical diagnostic value.
Range of Motion
Cervical range of motion is typically included as part of a cervical spine assessment. While it has been found that its inclusion is of some value, clinical conclusions should not be made based on range of motion alone.
OA Joint (C0-1)
This joint can be assessed with a simple nodding test, which effectively isolates the OA joint.
AA Joint (C1-2)
Cervicogenic headache patients are most likely to have dysfunction at the AA joint. This segment has been found to be symptomatic in 63 to 70 percent of patients with this condition. It is, therefore, vital that the clinician is able to identify dysfunction at this joint.
Cervical flexion rotation test
The cervical flexion rotation test has been found to have the highest reliability and strongest diagnostic accuracy for cervicogenic headache. Its sensitivity is 91 percent and its specificity 90 percent. Its overall diagnostic accuracy is 91 percent.
A normal result is rotation of 40 degrees or more. An abnormal measurement is below 32 degrees. This result would indicate dysfunction at the AA joint (C1-2).
NB: this test is affected by the degree of flexion the clinician places the patient’s head in. If the head is not fully flexed, the AA joint will not be isolated. This can result in false-negative results. Thus, this test can be affected by a patient’s pain levels and ability to tolerate full cervical flexion.
Dysfunction in these muscles can be identified by palpation.
Because CGH is associated with musculoskeletal dysfunction and muscle imbalance, a multimodal management approach that focuses on a patient's specific impairments is necessary.
Treatments for the upper cervical segments include:
- Cervical spine mobilisations or manipulations
- Strengthening exercises
- Soft tissue techniques
Specific Mobilisation Techniques
- Posterior to anterior mobilisation for the AA joint and C2-3
- Palpate C2 spinous process (i.e. the first spinous process that can be felt when coming off the occiput)
- Move slightly laterally
- Provide a small oscillatory force on the articular pillar
In order to preferentially mobilise the AA joint over C2-3, rotate the patient’s head slightly (around 20 to 30 degrees). This will take up the slack in the AA joint.
If the head remains straight, C2-3 joint will be preferentially mobilised.
To target the OA joint:
- Find the C2 spinous process and move superiorly. This is where C1 (i.e. the atlas is located)
- A posterior-anterior mobilisation on C1 can be performed to recreate and treat headache
It is important to prescribe exercises that will reinforce manual techniques.
Place towel or similar item about the atlas to mobilise the AA joint (or slightly lower for C2-3). Use the towel to guide the neck into rotation.
NB the pressure from the towel should not be too firm. Rather it should simply assist movement. It is important to practise the techniques in the clinic first to ensure that the patient understands how to do this stretch properly.
AA joint SNAGs have been shown to improve cervical flexion-rotation A recent study by Mohamed and colleagues found that when the AA joint SNAG mobilisation was used in conjunction with a headache SNAG, there is an even greater reduction in headache and dizziness symptoms.
- Headache SNAG = ventral gliding on C2 while the patient is positioned sitting on a chair.
Patients who practised the self-SNAG described above two times per day for 12 months had a 54 percent reduction in headache index scores at 12 months, compared to a 13 percent reduction in the control group.
Deep Neck Flexor Training
Deep neck flexor training can also help to reinforce improvements, particularly at the OA joint. Jull and colleagues found that six weeks of performing craniocervical flexion exercises were as effective as spinal manipulation at reducing cervical pain, and headache frequency and intensity for up to one year. This exercise programme is discussed in more detail here.
Soft Tissue Techniques
There are a variety of soft tissue techniques that may be helpful for suboccipital dysfunction, including:
- Muscle energy techniques
- Instrument assisted soft tissue mobilisation
- Muscle stretching
- Trigger point therapy
- CGH begins in the neck or occipital region. The specific sources of CGH are any structures innervated by the C1 to C3 nerve roots
- The physiotherapist must carry out a detailed subjective and objective assessment, which includes screening for any red flags
- The objective assessment should highlight which area/s are causing the headache
- Treatment must be targeted towards the individual's specific dysfunction, but a multimodal approach of manual techniques and exercise therapy have been found to be beneficial in treating this headache condition
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