Is Your Neck or Spine Out of Alignment? It May Be Causing Your Migraine

Updated on December 7, 2017
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By preventing shoulder stiffness and misalignment of my neck, I get far fewer headaches than I used to.


Cervicogenic Headache or Migraine

Have you ever woken up with a headache AND a nasty "crick" in the neck? The two are probably related! A neck ache and a headache could indicate a cervicogenic headache or migraine.

Cervicogenic comes from "cervico," meaning "neck," and "genic" meaning "relating to." These headaches are caused by the neck and by some definitions the spine.

Is it a Migraine or a Tension Headache?

To distinguish it from the more common tension or migraine headaches, a cervicogenic headache is generally caused from a neck vertebrae being partially out of alignment (subluxed.) In other words, if you have a neck pain and a migraine or headache, it's probably cervicogenic.

This causes irritation of nerves, especially the occipital nerve. Nerve irritation can be caused by muscle spasms which may accompany the subluxation or be independent of it.

People with hyper-mobile joints can experience these headaches often as neck, shoulder, ribs and pelvis sublux easily and often. So while the pain is in the head and neck, there may be other places where the instability started.

So Many Nerves and Bones - So Little Space!

How Can This Cause So Much Pain?

The neck and base of the skull is a very complex area full of bones, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves. With so much going on, it's easy to see why one little spasm or misalignment can cause problems - like a tipped over truck in Manhattan traffic.

Either the subluxed joint or the angry muscle can put undesired pressure on blood vessels and sensitive nerves, especially the occipital nerve.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the pain caused by the occipital nerve starts at the base of the neck and spreads upwards to the scalp. Sometimes the pain will also include the scalp, forehead, and behind the eyes.

A Headache (and more) in the Making!

Recognize this? OK, maybe the haircut doesn't help either!
Recognize this? OK, maybe the haircut doesn't help either!

What Causes This Cervicogenic Headache?

Whiplash or other neck injury can certainly be the cause. But a crooked spine, bad crick in your neck, arthritis, and in my case Elhers-Danlos Syndrome can also be causes. More commonly though, it can be caused by our lifestyle.

Modern life includes computers, driving, hand-held devices, and watching TV; all create severe stress on our neck and shoulders. While we know we should take constant breaks from these activities, we "forget!"

Holding our arms out in front of us and/or cocking our necks to see the screen properly, we put pressure on our neck and shoulders that our body wasn't built for. It sets us up for muscle and joint strain and pain.

This often causes tension headaches. But repetition of the poor posture can weaken muscles that normally hold our necks in alignment. When they weaken over time, the cervical bones can move around in ways that they shouldn't, pinching, squishing, and generally wreaking havoc. The muscle spasms also caused by long term bad posture can do the same thing.

Is it a Migraine, a Tension Headache, Sinus Headache or a Cervicogenic Headache?

About 42 million Americans suffer from headaches, 20% of chronic headaches are said to be cervicogenic. Four times as many women as men experience these.

There are many kinds of headaches including migraine, tension, and sinus headaches. There can also be a lot of reasons for them - poor posture, chemical or food sensitivity, vision changes, colds, hormones or stress. Sometimes, it's even a combination of these factors.

However, migraine and tension headaches most closely mimic a cervicogenic headache. Unfortunately, you are much more likely to be diagnosed with the migraine or tension headaches because so many of the symptoms are the same. For instance they all can affect one side, consist of severe throbbing pain, nausea, a sensitivity to sound and/or light.

Because diagnostic tests (blood work, x-rays, and MRIs) are mostly ineffective in this case, cervicogenic headaches are still widely under-diagnosed. According to the National Institute for Health, they are even considered controversial. In other words, many doctors don't believe in them.

If a practitioner does suspect a cervicogenic headache, the traditional way of diagnosing it is to do a neural blockade in the neck. However, according to The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, diagnostic criteria have been developed which provide "a detailed, clinically useful description of the condition." This allows for a diagnosis without the need for the neural blockade.


How Are these Headaches Treated?

Generally cervicogenic headaches are treated most effectively with a multi-faceted approach. Since no real studies have been done, this information is gleaned from anecdotal evidence.

  • Pain Medications - Although considered a temporary fix, pharmaceuticals can be helpful to survive a headache and relieve the stress the pain causes. Generally a combination of medicines for migraine headaches, NSAIDs, and perhaps anti-convulsive, antidepressant, or muscle relaxants can be helpful. Narcotic medicines are not considered effective in this case. Important: You must discuss these medicines with your primary care practitioner as the side affects need to be monitored with regular blood work.
  • Manual Therapy - Manipulation of the muscular-skeletal system can help correct the misalignment. Reputable chiropractors, Osteopathic doctors who specialize in manipulation, and physiotherapists can help realign the joints, often permanently after a series of visits.
  • Physical and Occupational Therapy - These are important modalities to help you correct posture and other lifestyle habits that created the misalignment and muscle spasms in the first place. Long term results are the goal and achievable for most people.

Approaching Your Healthcare Provider about Your Headache

As I always recommend for a condition that is uncommon or at least not commonly diagnosed, do your research. Spend time looking for information about your headache. When you find information that rings a bell, print it out. Highlight the information that resonates with you.

If you find that your headaches fit into the cervicogenic profile, make an appointment with your health care provider to discuss this. When you schedule the appointment, be sure to ask for a consultation so you have adequate time to talk without either of you feeling rushed.

Bring copies of your printed information that you can give them along with a cheat sheet with your particular symptoms and experiences. This helps keep the consultation on track. It's also helpful if you know which direction you'd like to go for treatment.

IMPORTANT: Be sure your information is from a reputable source which your health care provider is probably familiar.

If your practitioner seems skeptical, give them time to digest this new information and do their own research, and make another consultation appointment. No practitioner can know everything. If they are not willing to listen or become your partner, search for another practitioner.

Remember, this is your body and you deserve the best care you can get. But it is your responsibility to take proactive steps to get the care you need.

Things You Can Do To Prevent a Cervicogenic Headache

Prevention is always the best medicine. By preventing shoulder stiffness and misalignment of my neck, I get far fewer of these headaches.

For instance, I have found that when I sleep with my head flopped to the right, I'm sure to wake up "in trouble". So, I have a few methods to prevent this:

  • Prop my pillow up slightly on both sides - usually just using towels under it.
  • If I've been getting mild headaches that I know are caused by misalignment, I wear my cervical collar to bed. It's not the most comfortable thing, but is way better than the really severe headaches these mild one's can turn into.
  • I have several different pillows that work well depending on my needs. Sometimes I need something more firm, other times soft.

I also try to spend 15 minutes a day on my Real Ease Neck and Shoulder Relaxer. I have prevented cervicogenic headaches that were immanent by doing this, even in the middle of the night if I wake up with one starting.

I get regularly treated by an osteopath who does low-impact manual therapy. Most people won't have the chronic problems that I have due to my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and will be able to "straighten out" the problem with a few visits.

Work on your posture and ergonomics. Be sure that when you work at your computer, for instance, you are practicing good ergonomics - customize the keyboard and monitor height to your needs. And SIT UP STRAIGHT. Our teachers and parents were right. It will hurt at first if you are improving bad posture, but the effort will be well worth it.

Get up regularly and move around. We used to spend more time standing and walking than we do now. If you are at work, walk over to others' desks instead of calling or emailing. Drink water - refilling and going to the rest room will get you away from your computer. Take a walk around your house, inside or out. Get up and look out the window.

Many wearable fitness devices (like a Fitbit) encourage 250 steps per hour. This corresponds with the simple advice my Physical Therapist has given me. If you are goal or numbers oriented, these devices can be great tools.

Another activity I've noticed can cause or exacerbate these headaches is my smart phone. Swiping uses muscles that tense the area around the neck and shoulder. This is a hard one, but the headaches that can result remind me not to play those addictive games so long!

All of these things will prevent or lessen muscle tension.

Trigger Point Therapy Might Help!

I wanted to add information about my discovery of Trigger Point Therapy. This is therapy I can do myself when I need it most. I don't think I'm being too dramatic by saying that this has been a game changer for me.

While the physiology of trigger points isn't well understood, we can all find spots on a muscle that hurt more intensely than the rest of the muscle. By searching for these spots and rubbing them, the muscle can often be coaxed into letting go of the stored energy that is causing it to contract painfully. For cervicogenic migraines, there are specific trigger points that definitely help.

For instance, you can get amazing relief from finding the trigger points on the sternocleidomastoid muscle. This is a very large muscle attached to the clavicle bone in the front and the base of the head towards the back.

However, there are major nerves and arteries located in this region of the neck. It's very important that you do research on properly finding and massaging the trigger points and not the nerves and arteries. Putting pressure on the wrong place is bad.

Trigger point charts and books are important starting points. However, you must get familiar with your own trigger points and the muscles involved with your pain. For example, trigger points in my gluteus maximus and minimus muscles are sometimes the key to relieving my cervicogenic migraine!

The best part about trigger point therapy is that it's something you can do to help yourself when you probably feel the most desperate and helpless. There are lots of charts. guides and books. And the tools needed can be a finger, knuckle, or tennis ball. This therapy is well worth a try.


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    • profile image

      Amanda 6 months ago

      Hello I just read your article and am quite intrigued. I slept on my neck wrong about a week ago and ever since have had extreme pain when turning my head and the back of my head goes numb along with my jaw and ear. I've suffered every night with awful headaches that make it unbearable to turn my head in any direction. I figured I had irritated nerves when I slept on my neck wrong but the funny thing is that I've felt a bone hard lump on the right back side of my neck that I had assumed was normal after being made to feel like a hypochondriac about it. After reading your article I'm quite sure that it's part of my spine that's crooked. I'm still quite sore from sleeping wrong but now I'm wondering if I should get this checked. Thank you for the wonderful article.

    • profile image

      Lynne Price 6 months ago

      Fire the doctor who wants to put you on antidepressants. Lexapro is not the answer. How unethical.

      On the bright side, I bought a Tempur-pedic neck pain pillow and it's working great. If you buy one, be sure to buy a protective cover and also use a pillowcase (the smell is awful, actually smells toxic).

    • profile image

      MJ Dace 11 months ago

      I've been experiencing this pain for 12 h


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      sadiq 20 months ago

      i exactly have the same problem..

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 3 years ago from Maine

      Thanks Steve! For lots of folks this will be very useful. For people with EDS like me, our nerves do not give us the "that's far enough" signal when we stretch and so hyper-extending way beyond the healthy spot is normal for us. There is no way for our body to know how far is too far - until we've done it. So, stretching for me is almost forbidden. But regular stretching for most people is very healthy and a helpful way to stay out of this situation. Problem is, most people wake up with this, having relaxed their muscles while sleeping, and cricked their neck, leaving tight muscles trying desperately to keep the joint from moving any more. For me, it takes 1-2 days of rest to let the muscles un-knot themselves so the pain is back to a manageable level.

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      Steve 3 years ago

      "Cat-back" stretch!!! Do it!! On hands and knees, head down and curl your back up and hold. Then head up and arch your back. Instant relief. Simple reminder to stretch more.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 3 years ago from Maine

      Sharon Smiles,

      I'm so glad to help!

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 3 years ago from Maine

      Moon Daisy - I suffered two days at a time, twice a month for years. I still get them but far less often now that I get regular osteopathic treatment and understand the signs! I hope you can get some help and glad I could help you a bit!!

    • Moon Daisy profile image

      Moon Daisy 3 years ago from London

      Yes, this sounds exactly like me, even the bit about your head flopping to the right. When I wake up with one of these it's invariably after I've slept on my right side!

      The right of my neck is pretty hypermobile, so sleeping on my left doesn't seem to cause this problem, but when I'm on my right side, the (compensating?) rigid muscle on the left of my neck seems to pull something out of alignment. If that makes sense! And then of course the horrible throbbing pains start, and all the other associated neurological problems. Arrrrgh!!! So horrible!

      I've known for years that it's tied in with my EDS, but I didn't know the name for this type of headache, or that it actually had a name! So thank you for this very useful hub. And for the suggestions you've included.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 3 years ago from Maine

      Sam, I am unfamiliar with any professionals in your area. I recommend speaking with osteopaths in your area - be sure they do Osteopathic Manipulation Technique and aren't just a family practice or specialist D.O., physical therapist familiar with this kind of headache and who does manual therapy, or a chiropractor who specializes in headaches. Remember, if you've had these for a long time, the mechanisms that have created the conditions for the cervical imbalance will take time and work on your part with your professional to correct. Several months/visits on your part will be required. Feel free to print out the above article from JOAO.ORG and take it to your doctor. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Sam 3 years ago

      3-4 years of suffering from these... Off and on. Never knew about these headaches and I can't seem to get rid of mine. I remember a chiropractor fixing it but only for a week or so. Just since the other day did I find out about this and now I know this is exactly the cause. :( still nothing seems to work. My head is heavy and I have extreme facial pressure sometimes. It's very hard to think. If you could recommend anyone in sarasota, florida to help that would be awesome. Thank you and good article.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      You wouldn't believe what I went through about 9 months ago when I encountered a first hemiplegic migraine with paralysis!

      A nurse at the hospital where I stayed paralyzed for 8 days told me that it's not possible for the cervical spine to be associated with headaches.

      This was after having an x-ray days before the paralysis which showed I have bone fusion and protruding bones in my cervical spine. Later on at physical therapy they claim I was born like that. Yet, never had a problem before from it.

      I have since suffered frequently from migraines. I control them by taking allieve every day, exercising, and taking vitamins. I learned my magnesium levels were low so I take a supplement.

      On humid days, I suffer the worst. I suffer terribly and it's hard to walk straight without looking hunched over from the neck issues.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 4 years ago from Maine

      Thank you Rajan Jolly, Coolh and Shyron E. Shenko. Shyron, so sorry you are suffering. I admit that when I have these headaches, I have no desire to go to the ER as I'm not sure they have the ability to truly treat them. I may be wrong, but I also know the ride there and the waiting would be worse (for me) than lying in bed. Good luck getting a solution for yours!

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 4 years ago from Texas

      I have severe migraines, I spent yesterday in the ER with one from hell.

      The doctors don't know what is causing mine. Just know they are bad.

      will read you article again when I am feeling better.

      Voted up and shared.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      I had absolutely no idea of cervicogenic headaches so this was very informative. Sharing this as well as voted up and useful.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 5 years ago from Maine

      Thanks innerspin! Sometimes if I'm bad, I actually sleep with a cervical collar (soft, found at drug stores) which prevents my head from flopping over to the side when I'm on my back. Glad the article helped!

    • innerspin profile image

      Kim Kennedy 5 years ago from uk

      This was interesting, as I tend to sleep on my belly and often wake with a crick in my neck and a pounding headache. If caught early, I can change position and the headache wears off. Maybe it's time to go back to the chiropractor. Thanks for the hub.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 5 years ago from Maine

      Thank you Docmo!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      Excellent hub on cervicogenic headaches. It is good that you have clarified for people this cause of headache that is often ignored. Informative, well written and illustrated. Voted up and useful!

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 5 years ago from Maine

      Thank you Marpi - I hope it helps! Headaches are awful - no matter what kind it is!

    • Marpi profile image

      Marpi 5 years ago

      Very interesting read. I suffer from headaches quite often (I work a lot on my computer) so every info regarding this subject is very useful.

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