What is a Cervical Headache?

Headaches can be caused by dysfunction in the upper vertebral column (cervical spine).

The joints in the upper spine can become stiff or irritated and produce local inflammation or cause tension in the local muscles, resulting in a headache.

Why does it happen?

Dysfunction in the neck or upper back can be associated with:

  • Poor posture
  • Repetitive activities
  • Sustained posture
  • Pillows/mattress/seating that are unsupportive
  • Strain/injury
  • Degenerative conditions such as arthritis
  • Stress/tension


Symptoms can be varied but may include:

  • Dull ache/pressure/tightening sensations in the sides or front of your head
  • Pain radiating up from your neck/shoulder
  • Stiffening/restricted movement of the neck

What your physiotherapist can do about Headaches

A full and thorough assessment will determine the cause of your headache and the physiotherapist will be able to advise you on treatment options.

Physiotherapy can help treat the cause and symptoms of cervical or tension headaches.

Treatment may include:

  • Hands on manual therapy including gentle, graded mobilisations of the joints and muscles of the neck and upper back
  • Electrotherapy including interferential to relieve the pain and tension
  • Massage
  • Postural advice including sitting position at work and at leisure
  • Re-education of muscle imbalance - some muscles may have become over active and others often become weakened or inhibited by pain
  • Acupuncture to relieve pain
  • Structured, specific exercises to target the problem areas of your neck/back.

What you can do

A heat pack over a towel may help relieve tension in the muscles around your shoulder/lower neck. Try a different pillow/bed to compare how it feels. Avoid sustained repetitive posture, and try and fit in regular gentle exercises. You may also wish to seek advice from a healthcare professional to see if simple painkillers may be suitable.

Caution - Consult a doctor if any of the following occurs:

  • The headache follows an injury
  • The headache changes in character from previous headaches
  • You suffer from headaches every day - do not continue to take painkillers
  • You feel excessively drowsy
  • You have blurred vision
  • You experience balance problems
  • Your speech becomes slurred
  • You suffer any sort of fit