Neck headaches (aka cervicogenic headaches) are defined as pain perceived in any part of head caused by a painful structure in the musculoskeletal system innervated by cervical nerves. Pain associated with neck headaches have been attributed to impairments in joints, muscles, and neural structures of the upper three cervical joint regions.

Experiencing chronic neck pain? Learn more about our cervical spine physical therapy.

Treatment of neck headaches begins with the proper identification of the headache presenting with a musculoskeletal nature, which a physical therapist is highly trained for. The therapist looks for patterns associated with neck headaches and looks to change the headache (if a headache is present in the clinic during the evaluation) either by provoking it or relieving it with movements or stresses to the cervical spine. Once a neck headache diagnosis is determined, treatment aims at improving mobility around the head and upper neck, improve mobility through the upper back, middle back, and lumbar spine/pelvis as appropriate, strengthen the anterior neck stabilizing muscles and muscles of the core and scapular region, and improve the repetitive stresses of the patient’s normal day (i.e. sitting posture at computer) to aide in long-term success.

Although neck headache pain stems from the upper three cervical joints and surrounding structures, much success in treating these headaches comes from treatment to the thoracic spine. Repetitive poor posturing (frequently blamed as the precursor for a patient’s headache onset) flattens out the lumbar spine curve and exaggerates the thoracic spine curve. The upper back also excessively rounds, causing the head to look down to the floor. However, life happens in front of us (i.e. your computer monitor), so the head looks up and the chin pokes forward to place the gaze straight ahead. It is the repetitive forward head posturing which most often contributes to neck headaches, and correcting the lumbar and thoracic posturing automatically begins improving neck position and begins to provide relief to the painful neck structures.

Various home and work exercises can help relieve some of the stresses of everyday work positions which place the head or neck in positions that often contribute to neck headaches. The following exercises are commonly prescribed to patients with neck headaches.

However, if you are experiencing pain in the head or neck, contact Life’s Work Physical Therapy to schedule an appointment today. Located in Portland, Oregon, our expert clinicians provide effective spot-on diagnosis and treatment for returning you back to life’s daily activities, pain-free.

Cervicogenic Headaches Exercises

1. Foam Roller Lying

Lay on your back over the foam roller, with the roll going down your back from the bottom on the neck to below your tailbone. Use a pillow for good neck support during the stretch, and keep your knees bent to relax your low back. Have your shoulders relax on either side of the roll to stretch the anterior chest muscles which tighten with repetitive poor posture. Lay for 10 minutes, 2 times per day.

Corner Pectoral Stretch Drawing

2. Corner Pec Stretch

Stand in a corner with one foot slightly in front of the other. Place the forearms up on either wall with the arms up 90 degrees and the elbows bent 90 degrees. With your back and neck in a good upright position, shift your body weight over the front leg and feel a comfortable stretch in the front of your chest on both sides. Hold for 10 seconds, repeat for 3 repetitions, 3 times a day.

Good and Bad Sitting Posture Examples Cartoon

3. Sitting Posture

Perform these three steps if you feel you have been slouching for a given period of time, or if you start experiencing a headache (typically, postural correction works best if you perform this prior to pain onset).

  1. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your back fully supported by your chair.
  2. Find a good neutral pelvis (in between full slouching and full arching of your low back)
  3. Initiate breathing, feeling your sternum and upper ribcage rise superiorly during inhalation without your shoulders shrugging. When you exhale, keep the sternum lifted and feel your shoulders relax naturally back and down.

-You may notice your neck has already elongated to a better upright position from the above corrections, but final touches are made with a gentle chin nod.

-Hold this position while working on comfortable breathing throughout the day while at work. Can also work on this while driving in the car. Perform frequently every day.

At Life’s Work Physical Therapy, our team of highly qualified clinicians deliver the greatest level of service and commitment to diagnosing, treating, and strengthening your body from injury in the Pacific Northwest. Contact us today to speak a clinician and schedule an appointment.