Patients with headaches commonly complain of neck pain that starts at the back of the head and radiates from the upper neck into the forehead area. The headache is often one-sided. The term “cervico-genic headache” means that this type of headache originates because of irritated nerves in the upper neck region. There are many anatomical reasons why neck problems result in headaches.
The first two spinal nerves exit directly under the base of the skull; right where the skull meets the neck. The uppermost nerve is called the occipital nerve, and this nerve goes from the base of the skull to the forehead. The next nerve, located between the first and second cervical vertebra, is called the greater auricular (ear) nerve, and this nerve controls the area immediately around the ear and base of the skull. Any pressure on these nerves by the muscles or spinal joints will result in irritation and subsequent pain and headaches over the areas that these nerves control. Misalignment of the upper cervical spine will often result in pain that radiates from the base of the skull and upper neck, over the top of the skull, to the eyes, forehead, and face.
When a patient comes in for treatment of a headache, a thorough examination of the neck, upper back and cranial nerves is typically performed by the treating doctor. If headaches are related to the 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 forehead. Gentle traction of the neck may alleviate the neck pain, while gentle downward pressure on the neck may increase the 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. X-ray studies will help the doctor determine if your neck is the underlying problem. X-ray studies will show cervical osteoarthritis, foraminal stenosis (pinched nerves), disc degeneration and misalignment. It is not uncommon that an injury from years ago, including whiplash, childhood falls, and previous sports injuries may have set the stage for the underlying problem, and it is the “final straw” that has resulted in the initiation of the symptomatic condition.
MY ADVICE: Headaches that are related to neck conditions are one of the most common complaints seen in a chiropractic office. A chiropractor will evaluate your posture and your spinal alignment to see if your headaches are related to your neck. If you are currently experiencing cervicogenic headaches, neck pain that radiates into the back of your head; consider a consultation with a chiropractor to see if conservative management might benefit your condition.
(Dr. Craig Brue is an author, lecturer and chiropractic provider located in SaddleBrooke, AZ. For questions or information contact: bruechiropractic.com.)