Headaches remain a significant source of pain and disability for patients in our country costing over $30 billion dollars each year. Symptoms can be driven by different types of headache including tension, migraine, and cervicogenic (driven from the neck). Cervicogenic headaches can be found in 4% of the general population, 20% of all patients with headaches, and up to 50% of patients with headaches after a whiplash mechanism of injury.
The upper neck vertebrae are most commonly associated with these symptoms with the 2nd and 3rd vertebral joint driving 70% of headaches. The clinical diagnosis can be made based on the following criteria
Pain that originates in the neck and radiates to the frontal and temporal regions
Unilateral symptoms (may be bilateral but never together)
Radiates to ipsilateral shoulder and arm
Provocation of symptoms with neck movement
History of neck pain
Physical Therapy remains a first line treatment for cervicogenic headaches. Researchers advocate for a mulitimodal approach including spinal manipulation, neck and upper back strengthening (see videos). These interventions have received the highest grade (A) of evidence for treatment of this condition. Specifically, evidence supports the use of manual therapy and exercise over primary care management, manual therapy or exercise alone in patients with neck pain and headache. These benefits are sustained at 1 and 2 year follow up time periods. Finally, the number needed to treat (NNT) is 2 for patients with neck pain treated with manual physical therapy and exercise to achieve one additional successful outcome than would have occurred if patients received an alternative treatment.