Common Injuries: Neck Related Headaches

Updated: Mar 3

Your days are often affected by headaches.


You get pain that sometimes wraps over the top of your head and at times feels like it attacks you behind your eye. Sometimes you wake up and it’s ok, but by the afternoon you can barely concentrate because your head feels like it’s going to explode. And other times, you wake up and the pain is already there! Or you go to the gym but you’re hesitant to do anything overhead or….. bench press…. Because you know you will be paying for it later on with a raging headache.


Does this sound like you?


Headaches are the worst! Although there can be many causes for headaches. The symptoms I just described are often caused by cervicogenic headaches.


Today we are going to discuss something very near and dear to my heart, cervicogenic headaches. These headaches are usually one sided, often felt in part in the neck or base of the skull and radiate pain up the back of the head and into the face, usually behind the eye. They are typically aggravated by head motions or sustained positions and were the ban of my existence up until 1 year ago.


You might be surprised to hear that these headaches actually stem from issues with the top of your neck or upper cervical spine. The upper cervical spine is made up of the first 3 cervical vertebrae.


Let me set the stage.


The top two vertebrae in your neck are responsible for about 50% of your ability to rotate your head and the junction between your skull and your first vertebrae is responsible for 30% of your ability to flex and extend your neck (your ability to look down and up).


There are over 20 muscles attached to your upper cervical spine. There are also multiple nerves associated with your upper neck that can send pain signals up your head and into your face.


In conclusion, there are a lot of things going on in this small area which can create the perfect storm for some pretty debilitating headaches.


There are a lot of things that can throw off the balance of the upper cervical spine and result in headaches.

  • Neck trauma

  • Whiplash

  • Falls

  • Strains of the scalp, neck or shoulder muscles

  • Chronic spasm of the scalp, neck, or shoulder muscles

  • Weakness to the cervical stabilizers


For me, a combination of whiplash and puny cervical stabilizers resulted in years of frustrating headaches. Whiplash can often result in a sprain to some of the tiny ligaments located in your upper cervical spine. This requires your muscles in that area to do a bigger job. Mine were not ready to provide the extra stability that was needed from them.


So what happened?


They tried to hold on for dear life resulting in extremely tight muscles at the base of my skull and in turn pissing off the nerves in that area that sent pain up the left side of the back of my head. Like clockwork, when I tried to do anything overhead or any other type of activity that required a little neck stability I would get headaches.


And then I found the cure!


The key to cervicogenic headaches is restoring the balance between movement and strength. I had the movement but I was missing the strength piece. A couple key players that provide stability to this area are your deep neck flexors and your mid and lower trapezius. Your mid back is pivotal to providing stabilization to your neck.


Studies have shown that strengthening these areas results in significant decrease in neck pain and dysfunction. I didn’t get relief from my headaches until I got serious about strengthening these areas.


Some of my favorite exercises to strength these areas are:

  • Chin tuck with a head lift

  • Chin tuck off of an exercise ball

  • Z press

  • Mid Row

  • Bent Row

  • Standing Y isometrics

(You can find videos of a lot these exercises on our instagram page )


The other part of that equation is joint mobility of the upper cervical spine. As I said earlier a big portion of our neck motion happens at those top levels. If there is decreased motion available in the upper cervical spine, it can result in irritation to the surrounding nerves and lead to muscle guarding of the cervical musculature.


Some of my favorite exercises to work on mobility of the upper cervical spine are:

  • Rotational SNAG

  • Chin tucks


Now that you know a little more about what’s causing your headaches and how to address it let’s get it taken care of.


Did this blog resonate with you? Comment below with one activity that you know will bring on your headache.


What if it didn’t have to bring on your headache. What if you could get through an entire day of work and be able to go home and actually enjoy your family because you don’t have a throbbing headache? Or what if you could go to the gym and overhead press or bench without having to suffer the consequences of raging head pain? It is possible and we’d love to help get you there! Drop us a line and let’s get started!



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