What is a Cervicogenic Headache?

If you have a headache that seems to start in your neck, then you likely are experiencing a cervicogenic headache (CGH). Usually, the pain occurs on one side of the neck, radiating to cause a painful headache that can feel like a steady ache or a constant dull pain. The pain may intensify if it is not treated. 

Often a CGH is a result of problems from the cervical spine. Usually, the pain is triggered by problems with the C1-C3 vertebrae at the top of the spine.

A CGH can also result from strain on the neck, such as how you sleep or working on a computer all day. Sometimes they are also a result of an injury (whiplash). 

Tumors, fractures, or infections can also cause a CGH. Because there are so many possibilities that may cause a CGH is important to see an orthopedic spine surgeon and get a proper diagnosis. 

What are the Symptoms of a Cervicogenic Headache?

Sometimes patients confuse a CGH with a migraine or tension headache, but they are not the same.

Symptoms of CGH include: 

  • Pain that originates from the back of the neck and can radiate up into the forehead, around the eyes or temples
  • Reduced flexibility in the neck
  • Blurry vision on the affected side
  • Pain that is almost always on one side of the neck and head
  • The neck may be painful to the touch

What can Trigger a Cervicogenic Headache?

CGH can be triggered by abnormal movements of the spine or poor posture. This is why it is essential to have a supportive posture if working on a computer for long periods. 

Sometimes sudden movements of the neck can also trigger a CHG. For example, when driving a car or playing sports.

Even coughing or sneezing can trigger a CGH if the neck is agitated. It can also be triggered by laughing or bearing down on the toilet. This is known as the valsalva maneuver. 

How you sleep can also be a trigger of CHG. It is more common among stomach sleepers and may subside as you wake up. 

Is a Cervicogenic Headache Serious?

If CGH is caused by an underlying condition such as a tumor, infection, or a fracture, then it can be serious, and you should seek medical treatment as soon as possible. 

If any of the following symptoms accompany your CGH, then it is also important to see an orthopedic specialist sooner rather than later: 

  • A notable change in the headache pain to the point where it has become intolerable
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Neck stiffness and swelling
  • Numbness down the arms

How do You Diagnose a Cervicogenic Headache?

Orthopedic doctors often diagnose a CHG by ruling out other types of headaches, such as tension headaches or migraines. They will assess your symptoms, complete a physical exam, and ask you about your medical history.

Your orthopedic surgeon may order imaging tests such as MRI scans to assess the structure of the neck and rule out anatomical causes for CHG. 

Sometimes a nerve block is administered into the neck if you are experiencing a headache. If the pain stops with the nerve block, they can confirm the cause of the headache. 

Orthopedic surgeons may also try physical manipulations of the head and spine because if they resolve the symptoms, it can be assumed you are experiencing a CHG. 

How do You Get Rid of a Cervicogenic Headache?

Treatments vary based on the cause of the cervicogenic headache. Orthopedic surgeons have many options they may recommend to help alleviate your pain. 

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is often very effective in treating CGH. 

Physical therapists can develop a treatment plan to help alleviate pain at the source. They may teach you exercises that strengthen the neck and help with flexibility. With continued practice of physical therapy exercises, patients see significant improvement and relief from CHG. 


Medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, can be helpful. Sometimes prescription muscle relaxers can also be beneficial.

Nerve Blocks

Nerve blocks are pain-numbing medications that orthopedic surgeons can inject into the nerves and joints in the neck. They can temporarily provide pain relief at the source of the pain. 


When other treatment options have failed, your orthopedic surgeon may recommend neuromodulation. 

Neuromodulation is a surgery where electrodes are placed on the back of the head or neck. They are then connected to a pulse generator by a thin wire. The electrodes stimulate the occipital nerve. The occipital nerve runs from the top of the spinal cord to the head, so it helps eliminate the pain at the source. 

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Consult a Spine Doctor to Get the Right Diagnosis and Treatment 

If you are searching for the Top Spine Surgeons in Palm Beach County, look no further, than Dr. Matthew Hepler.

Dr. Hepler is a leading spine surgeon in South Florida and successfully treats a variety of spinal conditions. He is a Board Certified Spine Surgeon with 20 years of experience and leading expertise in the operative and non-operative treatment of the spine. He specializes in both pediatric and adult spine surgery.

Dr. Hepler offers services at two convenient locations: 

Contact us to get the diagnosis and treatment plan you need so you can be on your way to living life pain-free. 

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.