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How to Relieve Cervicogenic Headaches: Causes, Physical Therapy, and Treatment Options

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

mom with a headache

You may have a headache right now, as you read this. Or maybe you seem to get a headache by the end of your work day or after studying. Sometimes headaches often appear after a lot of driving or a stressful time. This type of headache is called a cervicogenic headache and comes from tension to the muscles that connect to the base of our skull, which is called the occiput. You might be experiencing neck pain along with the headache itself.

The good news is that they are very treatable and a few simple adjustments can bring you quick relief. In this post, you’ll find information on headaches and things you can do to decrease them in your life.

Physiology of a Headache

Take a look at the muscles that attach to the base of your skull. Whoa baby!

muscles that can cause headaches

These muscles assist in moving our head and help to support our head so that it doesn’t fall over. If we slump, slouch, or allow our head to be forward a lot (not stacked on top of our spine) then we make these muscles work even harder to hold our head up.

Most of us, even those of us that think we have good posture, tend to sit and stand with our heads forward. Even slightly forward posture can change the amount of force the muscles have to use to keep our head upright and looking forward. If this force is there for a prolonged period then it can lead to headaches. These are called cervicogenic headaches, or tension headaches.

Treating a Headache

So, you’ve got these terrible headaches, but how do you get rid of them? Check out these suggestions below for possible home remedies to help with getting rid of headaches and migraines.

If you’ve suffered from headaches for quite some time then you may have muscle shortening that needs stretching and re-training that needs to happen. You can start with these simple stretches:

  • Upper trap stretch

  • Levator stretch

  • Scalene stretch

  • Upper back stretch

Also begin a few postural training exercises such as these:

  • Chin tucks

  • Scap squeezes

  • Shoulder circles

The last and most important step is utilizing this new posture and general stretching techniques throughout your day when you are doing things that are mostly static: sitting, computer work, driving, studying, or whatever position tends to bring on your headaches.

Try to incorporate a few stretches every 30 minutes. Sit up tall, do a few scap squeezes or upper trap stretches and lean back over your chair to stretch the upper back and then continue your work. It doesn’t need to take long, maybe 1 minute or so, but your body and head will thank you.

The more consistent you are with these little postural corrections as a treatment plan, the less your muscles have to work to hold your head up and therefore decrease the strain to your head. They might even help with preventing headaches in the future.

When a Headache Gets the Best of You

By consistently practicing the exercises and techniques given to you during physical therapy, you can retrain your body and posture to prevent those nasty headaches from coming back. It's important to remember that our bodies have a tendency to revert to old habits if we don't actively remind them of the new and improved way of doing things.

Sometimes we get so focused on our work or whatever we’re doing that before we know it, we have a terrible headache and the stretches aren’t giving us enough relief. At this moment, rest your head and neck back against the chair or couch or if you are able, lay down with a supportive pillow.

Once your head is resting on a surface, perform a few chin tucks and then think about resting your head fully on the chair, couch, or bed; let your head be heavy so your muscles are all the way relaxed. Typically within a few minutes our headache will subside. Try to stay ahead of the pain going forward with a short stretching break every 30 minutes.

Seeing A Headache Specialist Near You

Physical Therapy For Headaches

Although there are great stretches and postural exercises that you can do, we oftentimes need the hands of a physical therapist to help us get ahead. Your physical therapy sessions will include manual therapy to work on releasing the tight muscles in your neck and connecting to your skull as well as postural training and strengthening to help prevent future headaches.

Sometimes joints need to be mobilized so that they start moving better and in the planes they are meant to move and a physical therapist can get their hands on them to assist with this movement.

You should almost always leave physical therapy with homework to retrain your body and posture to stay ahead of the nasty headaches. If you aren’t consistently telling your body of a new way of doing things, then it will tend to resort back to old patterns leading to continued tightness and headaches.

If you're currently experiencing headaches, it's highly recommended to schedule a session with us. During this session, we can have a thorough discussion about your situation and determine if physical therapy is the right approach for alleviating your headaches.

Our goal is to help you manage your work responsibilities, complete your academic tasks, and fully enjoy your day without the burden of headaches. Here’s a link to make it easy to schedule. Don't worry about any fees for a phone consultation, as they are completely free of charge. We understand the importance of finding the right solution for your headaches, and we're here to support you every step of the way.

Remember, by taking proactive steps and consistently practicing the techniques learned in physical therapy, you can regain control over your headaches and live a more enjoyable, pain-free life. So don't hesitate to reach out and schedule a session with us today. Your well-being is our top priority.

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