Cervicogenic headaches and migraines are sometimes confused because there are some commonalities. Both can be debilitating for the patient. However, there are important distinctions between the two and treatment options will be different.
The cervicogenic headache is a form of referred pain, meaning that the headache is the result of a problem in the neck, or cervical spine. The neck may have been damaged from an accident or trauma. The vertebrae in the cervical spine may have degenerated over time, causing the discs to compress. Nerves in the cervical spine that have become pinched may also cause cervicogenic headaches.
A migraine headache is considered a primary headache disorder. Migraines usually affect one side of the head and may range from moderate to severe. The pulsating pain of a migraine may be accompanied by other symptoms including nausea, dizziness, vomiting, blurred vision, aura, and sensitivity to light, sounds, or smell. A migraine headache may last from a few hours to several days. The causes of migraines are often unknown, although they sometimes run in families. Some migraine sufferers may notice certain triggers for migraines such as foods, fatigue, and weather changes.
Cervicogenic headaches and migraine headaches may have some overlapping symptoms. However, typical migraine symptoms occur much less frequently and to a lesser extent in cervicogenic headaches. Stiffness in the neck and a reduced range of motion are prominent symptoms in cervicogenic headaches. Turning the head or moving it in a particular way may actually make these headaches worse. The pain may also extend to the shoulders, upper back, and arms. This headache pain often originates in the neck and travels upward to the eyes and forehead. Cervicogenic headaches do not have the pulsating characteristics of a migraine and usually lack the nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity symptoms.
When diagnosing cervicogenic headaches, the physician looks for musculoskeletal indications. The examination will include an extensive medical history including any spinal traumas that may have occurred in the patient’s past. Imaging tests such as x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI will reveal any degeneration in the cervical spine.
Cervicogenic headaches can be recurrent, affecting a patient’s functionality and quality of life. Treatments for these headaches may include medication to relieve pain and inflammation. Physical therapy with strength and range of motion exercises is often helpful. Spinal manipulation is sometimes recommended. Occasionally, surgery may be necessary to stabilize the neck and relieve nerve or disc compression.