Headaches and Your Spine Health

Mar 17, 2022 | Blog

There are a lot of different types of headaches.


    • Migraine headaches.
    • Tension headaches.
    • Stress headaches.
    • Sinus headaches.

We could go on, but we’re pretty sure you get the picture – when it comes to “a simple headache”, there really ISN’T anything simple about it.


But, what happens when your headache is due to something else? Like a problem with your spine…is that even possible? And, if so, how is it diagnosed and treated???


The answer to “is that even possible” is “yes, it is”.


Now, it’s important to note that there are some headaches that cause pain in the neck, back, and shoulders, such as migraines and tension headaches. However, there’s also a type of headache caused by a spine issue and it’s called a cervicogenic headache. With a cervicogenic headache, there is compression (also known as “entrapment” or pinching) of the occipital nerve(s), where they branch off the spinal cord and exit the spinal canal.


This particular type of headache can be caused by a whiplash (flexion-extension) injury, a herniated cervical disc, arthritis of the cervical spine, poor alignment, and a narrowing of the spinal canal. When any of these occur, neck movement is restricted – especially in the upper neck area – and pain ensues. Occasionally an X-Ray, CAT scan, or MRI can detect the issue but, if the defect is very subtle, it may not be visible on imaging studies.


So, if it’s not actually head pain that’s causing the headache…how do you treat it? Well, the treatment aspect of a cerviocogenic headache has a lot of moving parts. For instance, because posture and strengthened muscles are paramount to our back (and head) health, receiving appropriate and timely physical therapy is extremely important.

Pain medications are sometimes effective but, often times, patients find that a nerve block (injecting numbing medicine into the area of the nerve) offers more relief. There is also a type of treatment known as “radiofrequency neurotomy” that aims to treat affected nerves via radio waves which are transmitted via needles to the affected nerves with the purpose of delivering heat in a targeted manner. Radiofrequency neurotomy works because the heat deactivates the nerve so that it is no longer able to send any additional pain signals to the brain.


Other treatments such as relaxation and biofeedback have also been shown to be beneficial and, sometimes, surgery is warranted when all other therapies have been exhausted.


A cervicogenic headache is complicated to diagnose and typically takes the experienced eye of an orthopaedic surgeon to make an accurate diagnosis. This means that, if you’re experiencing headaches and you feel your neck may be the source, please don’t hesitate to call Nebraska Orthopaedic Center and schedule an evaluation with one of our providers, today.