Diagnose Your Headache and Find True Relief

The key to effectively resolving a headache is to identify the correct type of headache you are suffering from. There are three main types of headaches: migraines, tension headaches, and cervicogenic headaches. Cervicogenic headaches are commonly misdiagnosed and easily resolved – once you correctly identify them.


Migraine Headache

Typical characteristics of migraines include the following –

  • Vision or sound sensitivity
  • Typically only occur on one side
  • Discomfort is described as “pulsing”
  • An aura may or may not be present
  • When a migraine is present, the symptoms are so severe that the individual cannot go on with their day and usually goes home from work or school


Tension Headache

In contrast, tension headaches are almost the exact opposite of migraine headaches. The symptoms include –

  • Longer duration (30 hours to multiple days)
  • Discomfort is present in a ‘ring’ around the head, often at the temples
  • No sensitivity to light or sound
  • When a tension headache is present, individuals are typically able to go on with their day, albeit annoyed by their headache and in discomfort


Cervicogenic Headache

The last type of headache – and the type of headache that physical therapy is incredibly successful at treating – is a cervicogenic headache. Key symptoms that are present include – 

  • Pain typically starts in the back of the head or top of the neck, moves upwards behind the ear, and ends around the eye. This is commonly called a “ram’s horn” pattern.
  • Discomfort is usually only on one side
  • Pain worsens with specific neck movements or sustained postures
  • Abnormal tenderness of neck muscles
  • Neck stiffness and pain often occurs at the same time the headache is present
  • Discomfort typically starts due to an event where your neck is in a specific position for an extended period of time. Common examples include: working a long day at a desk, a road trip, exercising with your neck in an awkward position, or sitting on a plane.
  • Rare but possible symptoms: facial itching, teeth numbness, jaw pain, increase in sinus pressure, and other facial symptoms


Wait, My Headache is Coming From My Neck?

Yes, you read that correctly. A cervicogenic headache simply means that the headache originates in the neck. This is because nerves that take information from the face and head converge with nerves that take information from the neck. As a result, when your brain gets input from one area, it cannot discern which area the input is truly coming from. Based on past experience, contextual factors, and much more, your brain will make it’s best educated guess.

Sometimes the brain guesses correctly and you feel neck pain. Othertimes, the brain guesses incorrectly and you experience a headache or facial pain. The worst case scenario is when the brain decides that both areas must be in trouble and you have pain in both locations.

As physical therapists trained in differentiating between different types of headaches, we can – almost with a question – discern which type of headache you are experiencing and help you start to get some relief. One exercise we give to all clients with cervicogenic headaches is mobilization of the upper neck. Getting some motion in this area increases blood flow, which can help decrease discomfort.


Cervical Snag Strap

Treating the upper back can also be very helpful for headache relief. The better the upper back moves, the less movement the neck will have to do to make up for the lack of movement in the upper back. This is more of an indirect way at decreasing symptoms, but when you suffer from headaches, every little bit of relief helps.

Thoracic Extension Over Foam Roller

Wrapping It Up

In summary, there are three types of headaches – migraines, tension headaches, and cervicogenic headaches. Cervicogenic headaches originate in your neck, but can cause headaches and facial or neck pain. The best way to treat these headaches is through self-mobilization exercises at home combined with hands-on treatment in the clinic. Resolution of symptoms is typically fairly quick – often two to four visits – and symptoms almost always stay resolved.

If you are suffering from what you think might be a cervicogenic headache, reach out! We offer free 30 minute discovery sessions. Within that appointment we will be able to tell you which headache you are suffering from and if we can help you get back going through life without headaches!

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