Patients with recurring headaches commonly complain of neck pain that starts at the back of the head and radiates from the upper neck into the base of the skull and forehead area. A sub-occipital headache may be located on one or both sides of the neck and head. The term “cervicogenic headache” means that this type of headache originates because of irritated nerves in the upper cervical spine. There are obvious anatomical reasons to help one understand why the neck may be the source of recurring headaches.
The first pair of spinal nerves exits directly under the base of the skull. The uppermost cervical nerves are called the greater occipital nerves. This pair of nerves exits under the base of the skull and travels to the forehead. The next set of nerves, located between the first and second cervical vertebra, are called the greater auricular (ear) nerves. The second cervical nerves control the area immediately around the ear and base of the skull. Misalignment of the upper cervical spine will often result in a combination of neck pain and headaches that radiates from the upper neck, over the back of the head, and into to the eyes, ears and forehead.
When a patient consults our office for the treatment of recurring neck pain and headaches, a thorough examination of the cervical spine is necessary. If headaches are related to altered biomechanics of the neck, the doctor will often find tender points located along the sides of the neck, under the occiput (the base of the skull), and over the musculature of the back of the head and neck. Gentle manual traction of the neck may alleviate the neck pain, while gentle downward pressure on the neck and certain spinal movements may increase neck pain.
In order to adequately rule out pathology, fracture, or disease, an x-ray study of the cervical spine may be necessary to establish an accurate diagnosis as well as recommendations for treatment. Imaging studies will help the doctor determine if your neck is the underlying cause of your headaches. Imaging studies may show cervical osteoarthritis, foraminal stenosis (pinched nerves), disc degeneration and misalignment. It is not uncommon to find significant arthritic and degenerative changes as a result of older, but significant injuries to the cervical spine. Previous whiplash injuries, childhood falls, and sports injuries may have set the stage for your current symptomatic complaints.
Recurring headaches and sub-occipital pain are often related to the misalignment of the upper cervical spine. A chiropractor will evaluate the alignment of your cervical spine to see if your headaches are related to a problem that originates in the neck. If you are currently experiencing recurring headaches, consider a consultation with an excellent chiropractor to see if gentle spinal adjustments will help you.
Dr. Craig Brue is an author, lecturer and chiropractic provider located in SaddleBrooke, AZ. For more information on neck pain and headaches, go to bruechiropractic.com.