Migraines can be caused by any number of factors, but one particular type of migraine is rooted from an issue in the neck—and its remedy can be as simple as good posture and stress reduction. A cervicogenic headache is any type of headache, usually classified as a migraine, caused by a problem in the neck. The term “cervicogenic” refers to the cervical vertebrae, the bony protrusions at the top of your spine, located near the base of your skull. Either tight muscles or joints that pinch on a nerve in the neck and shoot a signal into the head can cause a cervicogenic headache. The most common triggers are excessive stress to the neck or the spine caused by poor posture and excessive overall stress. Both of these triggers can be addressed by employing posture and alignment exercises and stress management techniques.
In a cervicogenic headache, the pain originates from a dysfunctional muscle or joint in the neck, and travels up the head. It can be triggered by specific neck movements or positions, but more likely stems from a chronic neck alignment issue. The result is headache pain that can range in intensity from mild to debilitating. Unless the underlying alignment issue is addressed, such headaches can become chronic.
Patients with cervicogenic headaches experience “sharp, shooting” pain behind their eyes. The pain may reach from the neck all the way to the head, or it might only be experienced in a small region of the head. In order to confirm a diagnosis of cervicogenic headache, a medical doctor must identify the offending nerve. To do so, the site is injected with a nerve block agent. If this provides relief, the doctor can identify if the headache originates from an issue in the neck.
Patients struggling with cervicogenic headaches are experiencing a phenomenon known as “referred pain.” Referred pain is pain that originates from a different location than where it is being experienced. In this case, a pain signal is transmitted by a nerve in the neck to a nerve that transmits the pain to the head or face. So even though the pain is being experienced in the head and face, these regions are, in fact, structurally intact and sound. The source of the pain, the neck region, is the compromised and dysfunctional area that must be addressed to alleviate the pain.
Cervicogenic headaches are caused by either joint or muscle dysfunction. Joint dysfunction, in terms of cervicogenic headaches, means a joint is not moving properly. As a result, specific neck movements cause compression in the nerves that run out of the neck, causing them to send out pain signals. In the case of muscular dysfunction, tightness in a muscle causes the muscle to go into a spasm and pinch on a nerve that runs through it.
- Be aware. Many people “carry tension” in the neck—overcontracting the neck muscles as a result of poor alignment and/or stress. This results in pain and discomfort in the neck and shoulders. Be mindful of the degree of discomfort you feel throughout the day by asking yourself, “How do my head and neck feel?” Keep a journal of the time of day you feel the most tension. After a while, you may start to notice trends and it will be easier to address the underlying issue.
- Take a “time out.” If you notice the tension in your head and neck increasing during a stressful situation, briefly step away and focus on your breath. Taking slow deep breaths decreases your body’s response to the stressor and allows the muscles to release excess tension. Once the muscles are more relaxed, your chance of it progressing into a headache significantly decreases.
- Relaxation is the best medicine.There are tons of different techniques for relaxation: simple breath awareness exercises, a hot bath, a restorative yoga class, or even just reading a good book while drinking a cup of tea. No matter your preferred relaxation technique, ensure you set aside at least 10 minutes each day to unwind and find peace of body and mind.
1. Elongate the Neck. Cervicogenic headaches typically are due to an imbalance in the neck. The muscles overcontract and the alignment of the neck gets compromised, putting undue pressure on the surrounding nerves. The simple solution is to lengthen, or elongate, the neck. To Elongate the Neck, start by aligning the head atop the spine. Do this by setting your gaze slightly above the horizon, and pulling the chin back as if making double, triple, even quadruple chins! Now, create as much space as possible between the earlobes and the shoulders by pushing the shoulder blades down the back toward the feet and pulling the crown of the head up toward the sky. In everyday life, Elongate the Neck while brushing your teeth in the morning. As you stand over the sink, set your gaze just above eye level in the mirror and make triple chins. Then push the shoulder blades down and pull the crown of the head up to lengthen the space between the shoulders and ears. If you are worried about dripping toothpaste on your blouse, simply hinge from the hips instead of hunching forward.
2. Release the Jaw. The jaw commonly clenches unconsciously when a person experiences stress or anxiety. Reducing excess pressure on the jaw can help mitigate stress and other alignment issues related to excess stress. To Release the Jaw, start by dropping the tongue to rest at the bottom of the mouth between the teeth. Now, open the mouth slightly as if trying to drool (bonus points if you actually do drool—though maybe save that for when you’re home alone!). Avoid opening the mouth so wide you have to strain. Instead, just let the jaw fall open gently as it might if you were sleeping. Hold this for a few breaths and pay special attention to the hinge of the jaw. Feel the muscles in the jaw, particularly the masseter, begin to release tension. In everyday life, you can Release the Jaw while checking your email. Drop your tongue to the bottom of your mouth and open the mouth slightly as if trying to drool. Take a few deep breaths focusing on maintaining this release.
3. Align the Shoulders. To further support the length of the neck and prevent undue tension on the muscles in the neck and shoulders, it’s important to find proper alignment in the shoulders. To Align the Shoulders, first pull the collarbones wide—create width between the outer tips of the shoulders without compromising the space between the shoulder blades, then push the shoulder blades down toward the feet, creating space between the shoulders and the ears. In everyday life, you can Align the Shoulders while carrying a heavy bag. Instead of letting your shoulders slump under the weight of the bag, stand tall and pull your collarbones wide. Then, let the pressure of the bag’s strap remind you to push your shoulder blades down your back toward your feet.
Avoid excessive neck rotation or bending. Think of things you do in your daily life that involve craning or straining the neck. Especially avoid sleeping on your stomach, which fully rotates your head to one side; craning your neck to speak to someone behind you (especially in a car—try using a mirror to see them instead); and the wicked habit of hiking your shoulder to talk on the phone hands-free.
Try these exercises below to help realign your neck and dissipate pain associated with cervicogenic headaches.
- Tuck your chin toward your chest to make triple chins.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Repeat 25 times, 5 times a day.
- Secure an exercise band around a solid object, such as a bedpost, at about waist level. Grasp band (or handles of the band) with hands, extend arms in front of chest, and position palms to face each other.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Stabilize your hips by opening your sit bones—the bones protruding from the middle of each butt cheek—wide, and engaging your abdominals by pulling the external abdominal flesh toward the navel.
- Open collarbones wide, reach tips of the shoulder blades down, and squeeze shoulder blades together. Hold for a count of four. Release shoulder blades.