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Is Your Headache a Pain in the Neck?

September 3, 2018

Headaches suck. We’ve almost all had them and they’re no fun.

A lot of the time headaches don’t last too long. These temporary, one-off headaches are sometimes a symptoms of not drinking enough water, not getting enough sleep, being stressed, or having drunk a little too much the night before.

But for some people, headaches can be ongoing or recurrent. It’s these people that might find they get relief from some physiotherapy treatment of their neck.

Chronic headaches basically fall into three categories.

  • Migraines
  • Tension headaches
  • Cervicogenic headaches

Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light or sound, and nausea. Sufferers often report that they experience an ‘aura’ which indicates that they are about to suffer a migraine. There is a strong familial link in sufferers and triggers can include hormonal changes, stress and exercise. Some sufferers get relief from treatment of their neck, but it is important for migraine sufferers to discuss a management plan with their GPs.

Tension headaches are usually felt on both sides of the head as a mild to moderate intensity ache. They may be caused by stress, muscle tension or lack of sleep. They shouldn’t be accompanied by other symptoms like nausea, or sensitivity to light/sound.

Cervicogenic headaches are a type of referred pain from the upper neck. This type of headache is usually one-sided (though may be bilateral) and accompanied by neck pain or tightness on the same side. The usual pattern is a mild to moderate ache in the back of the head and possibly spreading around the sides of the head. In these type of headaches, pain arising from the upper part of the neck is experienced as pain coming from the head, in the same way that pain from the shoulder joint is often felt as coming from the arm, or pain from the hip may be felt in the thigh. This is called a somatic pain referral, a completely normal phenomenon that comes from the brain not being that good at pinpointing where a pain is coming from.


Treatments of the neck that may be helpful for the treatment of headaches include:

  • Massage
  • Joint mobilisations
  • Postural retraining
  • Taping
  • Ergonomic advice
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises
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