What are Cervicogenic Headaches?

I know I’ve posted quite a bit about my health issues. Unfortunately, it’s just part of my life. A BIG part of my life right now. Between chronic pain from Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, it can get overwhelming, but the most debilitating of all has been chronic headaches. It wasn’t until recently I learned they are cervicogenic headahces.

What are cervicogenic headaches?

I have been battling my headaches for over 5 years now. Over the past couple of years they have just gotten unbearable. I went from having a couple days a month where the headaches were so intense I basically couldn’t function at all to having headaches at this level at least 5 days or more. What’s worse is my headaches never really go away. I always seem to have at least a headache of some intensity. The debilitating headaches started taking over my life.

What are Cervicogenic Headaches

The worst part is I went all these years without a clear answer. Doctors tried various medications from migraine preventatives to the migraine quick relief medications like Triptans (which I couldn’t take because of the side effects). Almost no medications helped. I would go to Urgent Care at least once every three months when I just absolutely couldn’t take it anymore, and the “headache cocktail,” which usually included Toradol was the only thing that helped. Even that became less effective over time.

Regardless, I still didn’t know why I was getting these headaches, and I’m a firm believer in treating the problems and not just the symptoms. Some doctors said they were tension headaches, some said migraines, and some said they were tension headaches that triggered migraines. It was so confusing.

Enough was enough. I need to function, and my level of functioning was way too low. So I knew we needed to get to the bottom of this. My husband still has consistent medical problems as a result of his chemotherapy, and our kids still have challenges with their special needs, but we were finally at a place where we could balance it all, and I could start really getting the answers I need.

Off to the neurologist I went, and it didn’t take long to discover I have pinched nerves in my neck. I admit I wasn’t too surprised because when I do have the headaches I almost always have pain in my neck and around the back of my skull. An MRI revealed I have a few bulging disks in my cervical spine that were causing some compression on my spinal cord and, yes, affecting my nerves. I am blessed there is no permanent damage to my nerves, but it obviously causes a lot of problems!

What are Cervicogenic Headaches?

So what are cervicogenic headaches? The American Migraine Foundation refers to cervicogenic headaches this way:

Cervicogenic headache, in a way, is one of the most unusual headache disorders because the pain truly isn’t in the head. Cervicogenic headache is referred pain (pain perceived as occurring in a part of the body other than its true source) perceived in the head from a source in the neck. Cervicogenic headache is a secondary headache, which means that it is caused by another illness or physical issue. In the case of cervicogenic headache, the cause is a neck disorder or lesion.

Because cervicogenic headaches are caused by issues in the neck, they are often misdiagnosed. Hence why mine were misdiagnosed for so long. I even had doctors take X-Rays of my neck and not notice the problems. It wasn’t until I had an MRI that the problems became so clear. It also explains why all the remedies I was trying weren’t working. In addition to medicine I tried many natural remedies which offered some relief, but, of course, it couldn’t address the actual problem.

Yes, my cervicogenic headaches range in severity, but they can be absolutely debilitating. When trying to pinpoint triggers, I started avoiding common headaches triggers and eating natural, whole foods. I noticed, though, that activity definitely aggravated my headaches, which has really been discouraging. Now that we know what they are, though, we can start trying to just treat the symptoms and actually work on the problem at hand!

Treating Cervicogenic Headaches

Treatment for cervicogenic headaches are going to vary based on what is going on in the neck. In some cases surgery may be needed. In my case, we are starting with physical therapy. It’s been a rough start, but I’m confident it will continue to get better. There is already improvement in my posture overall. I see Pain Management in a few weeks, which is where I will most likely start with injections.

This post contains affiliate links. Regardless, I only share what I personally recommend.

In the meantime, I stick to the few remedies that really do help. They don’t take away the pain completely, and I was even in Urgent Care again the other day, but any help counts. My best friend is heat. Some people say ice helps, but ice always makes my pain worse. Here are a few things that help me:

  • Heat. I don’t know what I would do without heat! Some people say ice helps, but ice always makes my pain worse. I use a heating pad under my neck and microwave rice heat pack on my head. I’m looking into a moist heat pack as well.
  • Cervical Neck Traction. They use a fancy machine for me in Physical Therapy, but use an Inflatable Neck Pillow for some relief around home as well. It sure isn’t as good, but it helps, and it’s easy and convenient.
  • TENS Unit. I use a TENS Unit on the back of my neck. Even better is I use the TENS Unit under the heat!
  • Relaxing. Tension and stress definitely make my issues worse, so it’s important to relax as much as I can. I love using Aroma Siez for a nice, relaxing massage.

Please note, these are things that help me, personally. I am not a healthcare professional. I’m simply sharing my personal experience.

Getting a diagnosis (and relief) for cervicogenic headaches can most definitely be frustrating (and may take a long time). I definitely suggest being an advocate for yourself. If you don’t feel confident in your headache diagnosis and/or treatment, speak up. Ask for more answers. When it comes to cervicogenic headaches, I’ve definitely learned the answer is treating the problem and not just treating the symptoms.

 





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Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I have spinal issues and will remember this if I start with regular headaches again.

  2. How interesting. I didn’t know what cervicogenic headaches were. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Birdiebee says:

    I have had Fibromyalgia for 27 years and get these type of headaches all of the time. As a matter of fact, I’ve had one all day. I know when I start to get these frequently, it is time to go back to PT.

    • Ugh. I’m sorry to hear you get them as well. I had a cervical spine epidural injection today, so although I’m in a lot of pain now I’m hoping it will help me start feeling better overall! They said it can take 2-3 days to start working.

      • Birdiebee says:

        I haven’t done the injections as an older lady (82 years old) who has Fibro as well gets them and it has not worked for her. I have done PT in the pool for 1 1/2 years but stopped when the PT office would no longer give me consistent appointments. This is the only thing that really helps other than going to the chiropractor but I still need some type of PT to stop the headaches. I am considering joining the gym just to do pool therapy on my own even though it is very pricey as this is the only gym with a warm water pool which is what I need.

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