Headaches - A Pain In The Neck!

How to fix headaches

Neck pain and headaches are extremely common conditions suffered by a significant proportion of the population.

It is one of the most common conditions that we see as physiotherapists, and we get a lot of patients complaining of headaches and neck pain.


Headaches and neck pain

A common cause of headaches is referred pain from the joints and muscles of the upper neck.

This type of headache is called 'cervicogenic headache' and is characterised by pain into the forehead, temple areas, and base of the skull.

Pain can also be referred along the jaw and into the ear.

Neck pain falls into 2 broad categories: postural-related neck pain, and neck pain resulting from trauma.

Cervicogenic headaches can occur with both types of neck pain.


What are Cervicogenic Headaches?

Cervicogenic Headache is a broad term used for headaches that originate from the neck.

It is believed that up to 20% of headaches originate from the neck.

There are a number of spinal problems that can produce these headaches including disc degeneration or undue stress on the joints, muscles, ligaments and nerves.


Postural Neck Pain

When we slump forward the neck joints are placed in a poor position to support the weight of the head.

The long-term consequence of this is often neck pain and headaches.

Many workers, students and retirees spend large periods of time sitting, and after a short time will move into a slumped position. This occurs:

  • At the computer or laptop
  • At the desk or table writing, sewing and reading
  • In bed reading


For good spinal health we need to:

  • Move often
  • Take regular breaks from the computer or desk.
  • Monitor your posture regularly and correct when necessary.
  • An alarm on your computer or phone can help remind you.
  • Perform gentle neck stretches and stability exercises throughout the day.



During a whiplash injury, the head is quickly flicked forward and then quickly back, or vice versa.

Large, shear forces are applied through the neck and upper back resulting in:

  • Joint sprains, ligament strains and micro-tears in the muscles
  • Headaches and nausea are common.
  • Other disturbances such as altered hot/cold sensation, vestibular (balance) disturbance and hypersensitivity can occur.

Recovery time is usually longer compared with pain of non-traumatic origin. 


Signs and Symptoms

Patients will typically report either a gradual onset of neck pain and headaches during the provocative activity or pain upon waking the next morning.

Frequently patients will report certain movements or positions that amplify their pain.

The pain can refer behind the eyes, into to the temple or wrapping over the top of the head.

Occasionally patients may even experience pain or altered sensations into the shoulder and down the arm.

In more severe cases dizziness, nausea, light-headiness, decreased concentration and altered vision can occur.


How can physio help?

Fortunately for most cervicogenic Headaches sufferers, a visit to your physiotherapist can provide some relief immediately, and often solve the issues within 2-3 treatment sessions.

Some patients will take longer to recover as a number of factors may be contributing to your symptoms.

Your physiotherapist should discuss with your what to expect with treatment.

Through a comprehensive examination, a physio will often be able to help diagnose and treat your headaches and neck pain.

Some of the factors that the Physiotherapist may assess include:

  • Posture
  • Muscle imbalances
  • Stiffness in the joints of the back of neck
  • Previous injuries or trauma
  • Stress
  • Poor ergonomics at work.

Once the cause of your headache has been determined, your physiotherapist will discuss your treatment plan.

Treatment may include:

  • Joint mobilisation to restore movement and reduce pain
  • Massage, trigger point therapy and dry needling to reduce muscular pain and improve flexibility
  • Stretches and postural education
  • Advice regarding helpful activities and those to avoid.
  • Advice to resolve and manage stress levels (stress is a common contributor to neck pain).
  • Strengthening exercises for the neck stabilizers esp. the deep neck flexors and scapular muscles.
  • Advice to ensure correct workplace set-up, driving posture and pillow height.


What’s next?

If you think you're experiencing these types of headaches, you really should see a good physiotherapist. Feel free to contact our friendly staff on 4983 1765 and we can point you in the right direction. That way, we can get you moving better and feeling great ASAP!