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Headaches: Why Your Neck May Be The Cause

With over 200 types of headaches and migraines now classified, research has shown that different headache and migraine conditions may share a common disorder, i.e., they are not separate conditions.

So, if we can effectively learn to treat headaches by influencing that common thread that defines them, that means we may be able to have an effect across the entire range of headaches that exist.

A physio named Dean Watson has shown a particular interest in finding a way to do this, and through many years of practice and research he has discovered that temporary reproduction of accustomed head pain occurred in 100% of those with tension headache and 94% of those with migraine, when examining joint mobility in the upper neck segments.

Headaches due to neck problems

Headaches coming from the neck have now been termed as “cervicogenic”. Knowing that we can reproduce symptoms in 94-100% of headaches, this opens the possibility that in treating these common symptoms we may be able to effectively treat most, if not all, headaches that are truly cervicogenic.

Through research, Dean and his associates found the key features of a cervicogenic headache to be:

  • Experience of head or neck trauma
  • History of a “trigger”, e.g., sustained neck postures, stress, poor sleeping positions
  • Gradual increase in headache frequency and intensity over time
  • Neck stiffness, discomfort, and pain
  • Symptoms can be one sided or switch sides
  • Ability to reproduce the accustomed head pain, or headache, with manual techniques, and that these symptoms resolve or ease as the technique is maintained

Treatment of cervicogenic headaches

Through pressure on deep tissue, utilising techniques such as manual therapy (“trigger point release” and joint mobilisation) and/or needling, we aim to reproduce the headache during treatment. As the technique is sustained, the sensitivity of the headache symptoms should begin to ease.

We believe this occurs through several mechanisms, such as inhibition of neurological input, biomechanical remodelling, and, perhaps, through the restoration of joint mobility.

What we DO know is that by reproducing your headache –  and perhaps even temporarily making it worse – we can expect an alleviation of your overall headache symptoms, either instantaneously or over the coming days. This may take several sessions, always leveraging off the effects from the last, but generally there is a noticeable change as soon as you start treatment, provided your physio has been able to correctly identify the areas causing your headache.

Ideally, this is followed up by addressing the cause of your headache; if postural, managing those loads with education and advice and/or giving an appropriate home program to shift those loads, correction of sleeping postures and prescription of appropriate pillows, correction of workplace set up and so forth. Our aim is to treat the symptoms, but also to identify and correct the cause.

What to do if you experience recurrent headaches

If you experience headaches, it is strongly recommended that you consult a physiotherapist to determine whether the structures in your neck may be causing or contributing to the symptoms.

Book in with one of our physios today to see if we can help. Schedule an appointment online, call us on (02) 4929 3898 or email us at info@peak-physio.com.au


Watson, D. H., Drummond, P. D. (2014) cervical referral of head pain in migraines: effects on the Nociceptice Blink Reflex. Headache (54) pp 1035-1045.