Millions of Americans suffer from chronic, debilitating headaches.
They are the No. 1 reason for missed time at work and strain our health care system by more than a billion dollars each year.
Despite the painful regularity of headaches, they are still a major challenge to manage. Of all the different forms of headache, cervical ones can be quite nasty.
The term "cervicogenic" (CGH) implies that the headache originates in cervical spine (neck). The top three vertebrae in your neck are capable of producing pain in your head that feels exactly like a headache. This phenomenon is known as referred pain — a process by which one area of the body generates pain signals that manifest in an area remote from the origin of the actual problem.
Upwards of 20 percent of all headaches are thought to stem from the neck. Diagnosing a cervical headache requires a thorough history and a full hands-on assessment by a skilled spine clinician.
Once diagnosed, cervicogenic headaches are generally easily treatable with most patients seeing a full recovery from all headaches inside of a couple months — and in many cases, sooner than that.
If you've had a workup for your headaches but haven't yet found an acceptable measure of relief or if you suspect that your headaches may be coming from your neck, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to any of them, you may need your neck checked out.
Do you frequently experience neck pain? It's a hallmark feature of cervicogenic headache and is present in over eighty percent of those diagnosed with CGH. The absence of neck pain doesn't completely rule you out from having a neck headache, but the likelihood is definitively lower.
Do you have a stiff neck? The inability to rotate your head is also a clue that you may be suffering from cervicogenic headaches. The upper cervical vertebrae are chiefly responsible for turning your head and often refer pain to other areas when a movement restriction is present — resulting in symptoms that resemble a headache.
Can you see the sky above you? Extension (looking up) is one of the best diagnostic measures to identify a headache of cervical origin. The added compression to the sensitive cervical joints that occurs during extension is often referred to as the litmus test of cervical headaches.
Is your headache consistently in the same place? Cervical headaches produce a fairly reliable pain pattern. Behind the eyes, by the temple and the base of the skull are all common spots. Pain that repeatedly shows up here may be from the neck.
Have you found little relief with medication? True cervicogenic headaches respond poorly - if at all - to medication. Even strong medications like vicodin and percocet have marginal effects if the headache originates from the neck.
Do your headaches last unusually long? Cervical headaches are described by patients as continuous — lasting up to a week before showing any sign of remission.
Most other forms of headache have a short half-life. Even disabling migraines pass within 48 hours, so if your headache is sticking around, get it checked out.
Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes "On the Mend" weekly. Questions may be submitted to Joe by email firstname.lastname@example.org.