Cervicogenic Headache Exercises

Cervicogenic headaches have become one of the most common and annoying headaches known to man because of their connection with the muscles of our head and neck including our back (trapezius, rhomboids, levator and latissimus). But the cervicogenic ones can be some of the easiest to deal with as well. In this article I will discuss what cervicogenic headaches are, what you absolutely must know about them, how to support your exercises so that you’re successful as well as some simple cervicogenic headache exercises.

What are cervicogenic headaches?

Cervicogenic headaches can be explained simply by breaking up the word into its roots:

Cervico – neck

Genic – created

So cervicogenic headaches are neck-created headaches.

Generally these headaches are those that are started by or contributed to by tension and pain in the neck.

But all of our muscles are tied together and so the muscles or better known as fascia that wraps over our skull are affected by the tension or pain in our neck.

As above, so below.

The muscles below our neck in our back including the trapezius, rhomboids, levator and latissimus are all responsible for contribution to the neck and head pain as well.

Pain in any of the systems connected to the nerves coming out from our neck can be responsible for the pain we feel in our head and these headaches.


But we also need to understand that all of our nerves “hold hands” and because of this we can have nerves above or below also affecting our cervical nerves.


This is one of the reasons we should have both a skilled physical therapist like a CHEK practitioner but also a health coach supporting us with our health and pain.


Absolute must know and understand about cervicogenic headaches


Even though the name cervico-genic headaches implies that these are neck created headaches at the end of the day our body is not this isolated.


Of course, we need to make sure we get our atlas and axis vertebrae checked, which are the very top two vertebrae of our spine…


We also need to look above and below the neck to find the source of the problem.


If these cervicogenic headaches were caused by an accident then it may be as simple as doing the exercises below and having your atlas and axis checked.


But if these have developed over time and are “idiopathic” without known cause then we need to take a more functional and holistic approach to it.


For example, often our cervicogenic headaches will be caused by imbalances in our posture that have developed because we, just like everyone else, are doing our work below us , usually at poorly designed desks, chairs and computer stations causing our head to come forward and our lower back to flatten out.


For every degree that our head comes forward it causes our entire body to have to compensate and adds weight and tension to our neck musculature.


But there is also a missing ingredient to the general approach of physical therapists with their treatment of neck and head pain…


We have to make sure core function is working properly and integrated.


This is where we come into viscero-somatic-inhibition.


Viscero – organs


Somatic – body


Inhibition – Turning off


When we experience viscero somatic inhibition our organs turn off our body.


More specifically our organs, if inflammed or overloaded will turn off sections of our abdominal musculature.


The easiest example of this is when a woman gets her period. If her body isn’t balanced her core will often turn off, her belly will get distended and her back will hurt.


This is the uterus overloading the parts of the nervous system that are feeding it and causing an entire section of the spinal cord to compensate.


So as much as we need to support the muscles of our neck and back and balance them with breathing and core functioning, we also need to address lifestyle and nutrition to turn off sources of inflammation in our organs or we may keep running into the same problem over and over again.


Supporting cervicogenic headaches


How do we go about this?


Core functioning and posture is the basis for a strong neck and keeping those pesky neck headaches away.


We want to first get away from any reasons for inflammation in the gut and organs and then support them so that they can do their job properly.


After that we will get into cervicogenic headache exercises and correcting posture.


The basis of a healthy, happy and non-inflamed gut is a great nutritional strategy.


This is often best done through a paleo type approach high in plant and pastured animal foods.


You want to make sure your blood sugar is staying balanced with meals and this can often mean avoiding grains, starchy foods and excess fruits.


An easy recipe for your foundations is to make sure you eat:


  • 3 cups of full colored vegetables or berries each day

  • 3 cups of cruciferous vegetables per day

  • 3 cups of leafy greens per day

  • Add sea weed and other sea foods for trace minerals and their high nutrition

  • 1+ times a week include an animal organ into your meals

  • 3+ times a week include a food high in glycine like bone broth, soups with bones, tendons and ligaments

  • Only eat pastured and grass fed or wild meats

  • Include soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds throughout


Above and beyond this we want to make sure our hormones are balanced so that things like menses don’t throw our body into so much inflammation it causes pain and shuts off our core.


But there is also the massive problem of dysbiosis(imbalanced gut bacteria) as well as fungal and parasitic infections in the gut which needs to be tested for by a high quality stool test and dealt with.


This along with liver inflammation which can come from environmental toxins like BPA, phthalates, heavy metals etc. Can also be tested for and dealt with accordingly.


Lets get into the exercises.


Cervicogenic headache exercises


One of the first places we want to go is correcting our posture and this is almost impossible if we sit with poor ergonomics for 8 hours a day at a desk or in a car. We have to find ways to support our lower back curve and avoid having to look down because this brings the head forward.


Using something simple like a lower back support and lifting your screen is an easy way to take tension off of here.


Before doing any exercises or changing anything make sure to see a physio, chiropractor or osteopath and get a full assessment.


As neck supportive exercises we want to use this circuit:


Start by taking the tension out of the back of your neck which keeps your head forward


  • This is done by putting your chin to the top of your chest and then using your hands to lightly pull your head forward and hold. You should feel a light stretch in the back of your neck. Hold this for 60 seconds as you need a long static stretch to take the tension out of your muscles.


Then work on strengthening the front of your neck which holds your head up right


  • See the video below for neck strengthening exercises






We want to make sure our core is functioning properly, and often this will get dismissed as being something we do not need to worry about because if our core wasn’t functioning we wouldn’t be able to stand.


This is a giant misunderstanding and a big part of why the fitness industry is full of fit sick people and perpetuating myths around “flat stomachs.”


We have two separate sets of core functioning, our inner unit and our outer unit.


They are both highly integrated into breathing and with every breath, our stomach should be expanding out.


This does not happen in stressed, overwhelmed and fearful individuals or individuals with organ inflammation that prevents the diaphragm from pressing upon and massaging the organs.


The majority of people experience an inverted breathing pattern and this is showing compromised core functioning.


When we breathe, our shoulders should not be raising up and into our neck.


When we breathe, our diaphragm which is a muscle under our lungs should be going down into the abdomen, creating negative pressure in the lungs causing us to inhale.


For the diaphragm to be able to move down our abdomen needs to expand out.


If our inner or outer units are holding tension, this will not happen and instead our breath will go up into our necks and shoulder, triggering fear and stress receptors, reducing breathing capacity and adding a load of strain onto the neck.


Queue headaches.


This tension can come from many areas some of which are:


  • Organ inflammation

  • Poor core function

  • Social and cultural perceptions about “flat” stomachs

  • Fear, stress or anxiety

  • A pattern that has not been retrained


For a simple neck exercise see the video below:




And the last and final piece is to make sure you stretch out your upper back and pectoralis(chest).


When we sit in poor posture our lower back will flatten out and upper back will over curve to compensate for our head coming forward.


But as our head comes forward our shoulders will often come forward as well causing our chest muscles to shorten.


We can work on both of these areas easily using a foam roller and rolling out our upper back as well as our chest and using chest stretches to open the front of our body up.


By using these corrective exercises and stretches combined with postural and ergonomic correction as well as the dietary, respiratory and inflammatory support you will be so much more successful in improving the quality of your headaches compared to if it was only an exercise based approach.


We always want to approach the causes, support the systems that need it and give our body a little push in the right direction. At Migraine Professional it’s a no brainer that we always need to approach our health holistically.


For more information see our article on 1 big tip for cervicogenic headaches here as well as 13 Secrets of Cervicalgia Headaches with exercises and treatments here.


What exercises do you use for your cervicogenic headaches?


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