Our headaches and pains have causes and fixes, even if they aren’t immediately apparent.
We need to know what to do, but we also need to apply it. All of the knowledge in the world is useless if not applied and turned into wisdom.
The neck is an incredibly supportive structure for our heads and in this article we will cover 13 secrets that may be leading to or improving neck pain that creates headaches, also known as cervicalgia headaches.
What is a cervicalgia headache? / Definition
The international headache society describes cervicalgia headache or more commonly known as cervicogenic headache as:
“Headache caused by a disorder of the cervical spine and its component bony, disc and/or soft tissue elements, usually but not invariably accompanied by neck pain.”
It’s simple. Neck pain or problems with the neck that create a headache.
But it can be complicated because other conditions like tension type headache and migraine also come with neck pain, making their diagnosis more likely unless there is a specific cause for cervicalgia headaches.
This can often be an injury or some sort of trauma to the neck.
This is where the diagnostic criteria come in.
These are the two main differentiating areas:
- Clinical and/or imaging evidence of a disorder or lesion within the cervical spine or soft tissues of the neck, known to be able to cause headache.
- Evidence of causation demonstrated by at least two of the following:
- Headache has developed in temporal relation to the onset of the cervical disorder or appearance of the lesion
- Headache has significantly improved or resolved in parallel with improvement in or resolution of the cervical disorder or lesion
- Cervical range of motion is reduced and headache is made significantly worse by provocative manuvers
- Headache is abolished following diagnostic blockade of a cervical structure or its nerve supply
As we get into the 13 secrets you will understand more about how the body can contribute to the neck, the neck can contribute to the head and the head can contribute to the neck pain and how they can all contribute to head pain.
Symptoms of cervicalgia headaches:
- Stiff neck
- One sided head pain
- Radiating pain
- Shoulder or eye pain
- Pain while coughing or sneezing
- Aggravation of pain by movement of head or changes of posture
13 Secrets of cervicalgia headaches + treatments and exercises
It is critically important to get a good assessment and testing done to rule out anything more serious, especially if you’ve had neck trauma or find a lump of any sort.
As we go through the 13 secrets of cervicalgia headaches I will list practitioners to see and exercises or other techniques.
- Your head is actually contributing to your neck pain
Our neck is there to support our head and keep our head on our bodies.
Our most important nerves go through our spinal vertebrae and this makes spinal health at the very top of the priorities list for the body.
Our neck will sacrifice itself to keep the head supported but when we are constantly put into forward head posture we can develop things like dowagers hump.
This hump is very common and with the advent of electronics will become even more so.
Our head weighs about 10-12lbs when it is situated directly on top of our bodies.
For every degree that the head comes forward, this weight increases because our neck is like a lever.
See the picture below:
Not only do electronics contribute to this but so do our mental and emotional states.
A confident, strong and open person has an open chest and this sets the head on top of the body preventing it from coming forward.
But someone who is shy, reserved or closed off is more likely to be looking down and be closing their shoulders/closing themselves off from the world which contributes to forward head posture.
Does the way you think or feel about yourself or your life get reflected in your posture and appearance?
If you can change the tightness in your body, the tightness in your mind will change as well.
Where do you hold the most tension?
2. Atlas and axis misalignment
The atlas and axis are also known as C-1 and C-2.
They are the set of vertebrae at the top of the spine that hold the head up, hence the name “atlas.”
The problem is that the main nerves of our body go through these vertebrae.
But these two are easily offset and even a small degree off misalignment like 3mm can have a huge impact on your entire body.
The body will make sacrifices if this alignment is off, often causing the head to tilt, shoulders to tilt and hips to tilt, even making one leg longer than the other.
Injuries and accidents like whiplash, birth and falls are all strong enough to malign these vertebrae for a lifetime of pain and dysfunction.
The most commonly seen spinal joint that will create pain in the head is C1-C2.
“Studies have demonstrated that provocation of the first cervical joint provides a variable referral pattern and C1-C2 joint consistently refers pain to the occiput.”
But the assessment and correcting system that regular health-care providers and physiotherapists have is usually not adequate to find the problem and fix it.
On top of that, we do not want someone who isn’t trained dealing with these as we can end up with a stroke or worse.
This is where CHEK practitioners and NUCCA chiropractors come in.
They are both well trained on assessing you and finding if there really is a discrepancy.
Some migraine sufferers swear by their atlas adjustments and if you’re getting neck, shoulder, hip, knee, head or foot pain then this is something important to look into by using the nucca directory here.
3. Neck injury
If you were in an accident or suffered an injury, only to have head or neck pain show up days to weeks to even months later, then you have to get it checked out. The problem is that not many MDs can properly screen you for problems with your vertebrae or musculature.
This is why I recommend finding a highly qualified chiropractor or osteopath. They will be able to help you correct and problem and then give you exercises so that your body can be re-trained.
When something gets shifted, over time our body gets used to this and develops a compensation pattern that works for that particular problem.
But patterns are hard to undo and if you’ve had a problem for years then it can actually feel very foreign to start functioning normally again.
Correct any problem and then retrain the nervous system and it will let go of any tension it is holding onto that can be pulling the musculature in the neck, back or head.
Using feldenkrais or alexander technique can help you restore normal functioning through the feeling of movement.
4. The wrong muscles are tight and supportive muscles are loose
Next we have the standard problem of overuse and under use.
We are pulled forward and down now more than every before because of our reliance on tables, chairs, electronics, cars, phones, desks and couches.
We are no longer predominantly walking up right.
This means the muscles in the back of our neck are getting too strong and the muscles in the front are not being used.
But not only do the muscles get tight, they pull other musculature and fascia they are connected to. We have muscles all the way from the bottom of our neck attached over the head and down onto the forehead eyes and cheeks. It’s a recipe for head pain.
We want to undo this.
When we want to deactivate a muscle, we can use a strong held stretch to take the tension out of it.
When we want to strengthen a muscle we simply need to use and contract it more.
In the video below are exercises you can use to stretch the tight and strengthen the weak muscles in your neck to restore balance.
5. You’re sleeping wrong
Sleep is huge and poor sleep is a huge source of stress.
We spend a third of our lives doing this activity and not moving, if we are not supported well, we will create imbalances that are hard to undo with a few minutes of stretching or strengthening.
How often do you wake up with head pain?
Our neck needs support so that it’s not being strained.
Our back needs support so that it’s not being stretched.
Our legs need support so that they are not creating torsion or twisting in our back.
If we have a crater in the middle of our bed we need a new one.
If our pillow isn’t holding our head in a neutral position like when we stand, we need to try some new ones out.
And if we sleep on our side and have one leg out, we need to keep our knee raised so that it doesn’t pull the side of our pelvis forward.
It’s simple, but often overlooked.
See this info-graphic on sleep position.
6. Your phone
It has become the largest postural mutation in our history.
Phones are like an extra limb and connect us to the limitless information available to us.
But we are not well suited for them.
Our weak arms make us hold phones low, causing our heads to come forward and necks to have to compensate, causing stretching and grinding of our vertebrae.
It’s a big problem and any effort we can make to lift our phones up in front of our faces will take the load off and stop the programming of the pattern into our bodies.
Not only that, but we may develop nicer shoulders as well.
Go hands free, wireless devices shouldn’t be near your body anyway as they have been linked to tumors and increased temperatures within cells.
7. Abdominal wall weakness
Our body is highly integrated, just like a web, if our abs are weak or non functioning, our body will cave in.
This will bring our chest down, shoulders in and head down.
Not only can repeatedly doing forward head posture behaviors do this because our body is trying to give our neck extra room to compensate, but this can also happen as a result of closed off breathing which we will cover further down.
First we have to make sure it’s not deep tension that is causing the problem. We hold emotional baggage in our abdomen but thankfully we can stretch and breathe it out.
First start with stretching, loosen up your body, make it supple.
After a few weeks of stretching and learning how to breathe deep, if the problem has not corrected itself then you can start using strengthening exercises like hanging leg lifts, stomach vacuums and other core exercises that help you integrate your arms, legs and head with your abdomen.
Try to avoid isolated abdominal movements as the body doesn’t isolate and everything works together so using isolated exercises may make the problem worse.
8. Organ inflammation
Piggybacking on abdominal wall weakness is organ inflammation.
Our organs take priority over our bones, joints and muscles.
If they are having a problem, the body will choose their needs first.
When we have inflammation in an organ like our liver or intestines, they need lots of oxygen, nutrients and blood.
If our muscles around them are tight, they don’t have the free blood flow they need.
So the muscles get shut off.
Back gets disengaged, abs are loosened.
This causes problems up and down the chain of our bodies.
If it only happens for a few days it’s usually okay, like when we drink for example.
But if this is chronic, we lose the integrity of our body.
Everything else starts trying to compensate, we cannot breathe deeply, neck and shoulder muscles get overworked and our head doesn’t get the support it needs.
Queue tension and pain.
This is one of the countless reasons finding a holistic health practitioner for your journey is crucial and why I help those who need advanced help here.
9. Estrogen dominance
Estrogen dominance is almost synonymous with ligament laxity.
As we get more estrogen in our bodies, our protein fibres get looser.
The problem is that estrogen is everywhere in our modern environments.
Petroleum products contain estrogens and everything is made from them like plastics and rubbers.
Heard of BPA? It’s a huge problem and in most plastics. Luckily it’s starting to get banned and awareness is being brought to it, but far too slowly.
Now its simply replaced with BPS, which has the same problems.
These compounds that are in makeup, hygiene products, packaging, foods, clothing and more are endocrine disruptors.
They disrupt the function of our endocrine system which is our glands.
Glands release hormones and are incredibly sensitive.
These endocrine disruptors are also known as obesogens…
Why? Because they make you obese.
How prevalent are hormonal problems, PMS, excessive fat and other estrogen related problems?
Plus, as a bonus, if you have ligament or muscle laxity, your atlas and axis adjustment won’t stick.
It will keep coming out of place until the imbalance is corrected because the muscles are too loose.
10. You don’t know how to breathe(Most of us don’t)
You can live weeks without eating and days without drinking.
But only minutes without breathing.
It is the most essential of systems and connected to everything, like the way we think, feel and act.
It also influences our posture and vice versa.
We need to be breathing deep and down.
If we raise our shoulders when we breathe, we are doing it wrong.
Shoulder breathing means lots of anxiety problems and a huge amount of neck tension.
Our neck should not be supporting our breathing.
Our lungs go down, not up.
Retrain this immediately as I see it every day causing unnecessary head pain.
For more information on breathing make sure to read our article on 1 big tip for cervicogenic headaches here.
11. Blame your couch, car and chair
We love them, they are comfortable.
But they are this way because this is the pattern we’ve programmed into our bodies.
Just like how a professional cyclist preparing for a marathon has a rough time standing.
The pattern that we train is the one that becomes the norm.
Our body is compensating and trying to get better at what we are doing, no matter if it’s hurting us or not.
The problem is, it is hurting us.
Our breathing gets restricted, organs cannot function properly, nerves are impeded, we become lazy and sedentary…
This leads to even deeper issues like only wanting to be soothed and comforted which is the express lane for chronic disease. We need a balance of both and this means we need to function well in multiple modes.
Run, jump, walk, squat, lunge, push, pull and lift.
Use these to undo the patterns of sitting, it doesn’t have to be heavy or complicated, but it does have to move you.
As you get better at switching you will get more energy, your posture will fix and your neck will get stronger and be able to brush off any functional problems.
Use full body movements because everything in the body has to be integrated…
A bicep curl does nothing for your integration unless you turn it into a shoulder press and lunge etc.
12. Neck strain means inflammation which = anti-inflammatory support is needed
When in doubt, give the body some supplemental support to help speed up healing and take the burden off.
Some of the signature ways to do this are:
Turmeric – See our article on turmeric curcumin for migraines and headaches
Alternating hot-cold showers – It’s really simple but takes some will power, repeat hot and cold for 2-3 minutes
Magnesium for tension – See our article on magnesium glycinate for migraines and headaches
13. Locked shoulders
By now, you know that the body is highly integrated and everything talks to everything else.
The closest neighbour of the neck and head is the shoulder.
When the shoulder is having issues it is a surefire sign that we need to look at the neck as a possible cause.
We need to have a great range of motion whether we have headaches or not.
But when our shoulders are frozen and we have a severely limited ability to move around, our life and options deteriorate.
See the video below to understand more about frozen shoulder.
Cervical headaches can be a pickle, especially with doctors who just want to drug you and physiotherapists who’s exercises do nothing to address the actual cause.
By understanding these 13 secrets we are much better equipped to deal with any kind of head or neck pain from a holistic perspective because we known that the mind and body are interconnected.
Click here to understand the most important connection we have to our neck pain in our article, 1 big tip for cervicogenic headaches here.
Do you get neck pain with your headaches or head pain with your neck-aches?
Let me know in the comments below and send this to someone who’s experiencing them.