Cervicogenic Headache – Causes and Treatment

By whatever name you want to call them cervicogenic headache, tension or stress headaches, in today’s high demand, high stress world they are a huge problem.

In this post you will find out what causes these headaches and most importantly how YOU can improve and get rid of headaches drug-free!

What is Cervicogenic Headache?

Cervicogenic headache, also commonly known as tension headache, is a headache in which you experience a steady pain in your head but seems to be originating from your neck.

The pain sensation begins at the sub-occipital muscles of the cervical spine which in simpler terms are the muscles right at the base of the skull.

Many people have headaches as a common occurrence, simply cannot get rid and have learnt to live with them.

For the majority of headaches sufferers, this simply should not and does not need to be the case.


What are the most common symptoms?

The pain is experienced in the forehead, temples, around the eyes and often gets worse with prolonged postures, stress and neck pain.


Starting to sound familiar? If so read on!

What causes Cervicogenic Headache?

As mentioned before, this headache is caused by muscles right at the base of the skull. How do these muscles cause headaches?

The pain is essentially caused by trigger points in the muscle referring pain to different points on the head.

These  are caused by a number of things, including the following, and often not by one factor in isolation.

What are Some Trigger Points?

1. Poor Posture

Poor posture causes a lot of stress on the posterior structures of the upper neck.

Poor posture also causes a forward head posture, which closes down of the joints of the upper spine, in turn putting stress on the supporting muscle to hold the head up while out of alignment.

This stress causes the sub-occipital muscles to tighten up in order to protect the joints, which if maintained this can cause trigger points and chronic pain.

2. Stress:

When you are under stress, from any source, you tend to tense up your shoulders, raise your shoulder blades and tense up at the back of your neck.

This causes a forward head posture and over activation of you global muscles.

Along with this, the chemical make up in your body changes.

3. Sports:

Sports that need a lot of hyper-extension such as diving and climbing and also sports that can injure and put pressure on the neck.

These actions close down the joints at the back of your neck and cause muscle guarding and increased tension.

Contact sports such as football and rugby also cause jarring and injury which can lead to headaches.

4. Spinal injury

Such as whiplash.

5. Degenerative spinal disease and Arthritis.

These diseases cause breakdown of joint surfaces and extra bone growth causing a lot of pain and irritation.

Because of this the surrounding muscles tense up to try and protect the joints.

This leads to knots in the surrounding muscles which no longer function properly and can cause pain themselves.

Long term impact of Trigger Points on Cervicogenic Headache

Once trigger points are formed and you have the headaches that go untreated, they often stick around due to decreasing muscle function, with a number of factors having effect:


Sub-Occipital muscle trigger point

When the sub-occipital muscles tighten and form trigger points, if left untreated, these form a cycle of decreasing muscle function.

The trigger points and tight muscles decrease the blood getting into these muscles leading to tighter muscles and more pain.

Loss of feeling in the neck

The second major problem which adds to this cycle is loss of feeling in the neck.

When in pain, the proprioceptors in the neck are inhibited, these receptors relay information  to your brain, telling you where your body is in space.

Due to pain and tightness, the receptors can no longer effectively sense if your head is in the correct position.

This leads to worse neck posture and also decreased movement due to trying to protect the area.

Loss of activation of the deep stabilizing muscles

The third point that adds to this cycle just like in low back pain is loss of activation of the deep stabilizing muscles.

The deep neck flexors are the core of your neck and in pain disorders these stabilizing muscles show decreased muscle control and endurance.

This leads to less stabilization which in turn causes large global muscles such as your upper traps and levator scapulae to take off and be a nuisance.

Cervicogenic Headache or Migraine?

So how do you know if you are getting cervical headaches and not migraines?

Here is a quick reference table in oreder to help differentiate between tension headaches and migraines.

Cervicogenic headache


Effectiveness of pain killers


Limited response


Dull, aching

Described as an attack




Effect of migraine drugs

No relief


Family history

No connection

Family history related

Neck pain

Some neck tenderness or stiffness


Quick Test:

The most significant test I use in practice everyday (if the above matches) is palpation of the offending muscles.

You can do this by

  • Feeling the sub-occipital muscles with your index finger, with the middle finger on top of it for support.
  • Push into the muscles gently and massage(with reasonable force) around the muscles at the base of your skull.
  • When you come across a part of the muscles which feels harder, lumpier of slightly painful, stay there and increase the pressure
  • If the pain from this refers into the head similar to the headaches you get, then this is most likely a major cause or contributor of your headaches and CAN BE TREATED.

How are Cervicogenic Headaches treated?

These headaches can be treated very effectively by a Physiotherapist, the aim of treatment is to:

  1. Relax the muscles, mobilize the joints.
  2. Increase muscle stabilization.
  3. Treat the causative factor if possible, such as poor posture or stress.

But as always I want you to help your self and be as independent as a possible! In subsequent posts I will let you in on how to get rid of  headaches at home:

See my posts on these techniques and if you really stick to the above three points and give them a good try, then you will achieve awesome results.

Final Thoughts

Why live with the pain and discomfort if you can do something about it as easy as this.

Even spending 10-20 minutes each day doing these self treatments will help!

Try it for 6 weeks and you will be sleeping well again.

You can more in depth knowledge from the experts and access to a full rehab plan at Headache Proof Me.

Let me know how you get on!

1 thought on “Cervicogenic Headache – Causes and Treatment”

  1. tatoeage ontwerpen

    Thnx for publicing this fantastic information. Keep up the good work. I’ll subscribe to your site also. thanks!

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