Search IconSearch

8 Things to Know About Cervicogenic Headaches

Neck problems can lead to head pain, but relief is possible

woman with headache while workingon laptop from couch

A headache has a relentless ability to ruin your day. Sometimes, we can blame our pounding head on stress, sinus problems or a migraine. But what if your headache has nothing to do with your head?


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

A cervicogenic headache isn’t your typical headache, explains headache and pain specialist Emad Estemalik, MD. It’s a neck problem that translates into head pain. Doctors call it referred pain — when you feel pain in a different area of your body other than the source of the problem.

Dr. Estemalik explains what you should know about a cervicogenic headache — and warning signs you shouldn’t ignore.

1. The cause is often a neck injury

If you’ve ever experienced a headache after whiplash, you might have had a cervicogenic headache. Other causes include:

  • Arthritis in the neck.
  • Neck fractures.
  • Pinched nerves.
  • Slipped disks.
  • Strained or sprained neck muscles.

2. It doesn’t feel like other headaches

Cervicogenic headaches have some unique traits that may clue you in. “Cervicogenic headaches usually hurt on one side of the head,” Dr. Estemalik says. “They start around the base of your skull and radiate up one side.”

Your neck may also give you some hints. “A hallmark of a cervicogenic headache is a limited ability to move your neck or head,” Dr. Estemalik explains. “Your headache may get worse when you move your neck.”

3. Your office setup may be to blame

A major injury like a fall or accident isn’t the only trigger for these headaches. If your desk or office chair causes you to slouch or strain, you could get a cervicogenic headache.


“When you sit at a desk too long, you may have your neck flexed down,” Dr. Estemalik says. “You might arch your back while you’re sitting. This can bring on a cervicogenic headache.”

Look into proper ergonomics for your office if you sit at a desk. “Focus on keeping your back and neck straight while you sit,” says Dr. Estemalik. “Make sure you’re not bending forward.”

4. A massage can help

“Some patients get relief from cervicogenic headaches after getting a massage,” Dr. Estemalik says. “A massage therapist can relieve tension in muscles that are causing the headache.”

See a professionally trained massage therapist who has experience dealing with neck pain. Ask your doctor for recommendations.

5. Get rid of your old pillow or mattress

Sleep should be a time for your body to rest and recharge. So be choosy about your sleeping equipment.

“Finding the right mattress and pillow can be key to preventing a cervicogenic headache,” Dr. Estemalik says. “Do you wake up with neck pain or a headache? That could be a clue that you need to switch your pillow or mattress.”

Find a pillow that keeps your neck in line with your back. The exact pillow type varies from person to person based on your sleeping position and body type. And follow Goldilocks’ advice about your bed: Not too hard or too soft. Replace old mattresses and pillows, since they lose their support after years of use.

6. Don’t try neck exercises without an expert’s help

If you strained your neck, it’s tempting to try and do some stretching or exercises yourself. But DIY treatment may not be helpful and could make it worse.

“The neck is very complex,” Dr. Estemalik says. “That’s why physical therapy is key to treating this type of headache. Your physical therapist can identify which muscles are involved. They can guide you through exercises to strengthen the core muscles that need it. They also help you avoid overusing certain muscles that could cause more pain.”

Without expert guidance, you could further strain your neck or work on the wrong areas.

7. Watch for red flags

Even if you have classic symptoms of a cervicogenic headache, don’t pop some pain reliever and forget about it. See a doctor, who can rule out something more serious.

“Always take a one-sided headache seriously,” says Dr. Estemalik. Although rare, it can be a sign of a tear in one of the neck arteries. This is a common cause of stroke, especially in people under age 45.

If you notice any of these signs with a headache, seek emergency care right away:

  • Sudden, severe neck pain.
  • Double vision or a droopy eyelid.
  • Dizziness or vertigo.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Numbness or weakness on one side of the body.

8. Noninvasive treatment usually works

Most cervicogenic headaches get better with physical therapy and pain relievers. In some cases, a minimally invasive pain relief procedure such as a nerve block can be helpful.

You have options for relief, so don’t try to tough it out. See your doctor to find out how to get rid of the pain and get back to living your life ASAP.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

female looking down at smartphone, rubbing back of neck
December 18, 2023/Brain & Nervous System
How Your Smartphone May Be Giving You ‘Text Neck’

You can relieve this condition by improving your posture and using a variety of movements

Person sitting up straight in chair while checking smartphone.
July 13, 2022/Orthopaedics
How To Improve Your Posture When You Have Ankylosing Spondylitis

Ease pain and stay active by keeping your spine in its proper position

Dad buckling baby into rear facing car seat
April 6, 2022/Children's Health
How Long Should You Keep Your Child Rear-Facing in a Car Seat?

Get the answer along with tips for safe installation

A person sitting up on a bed with a laptop on their lap.
January 20, 2022/Wellness
What’s Causing Your Neck Pain?

Here’s why it may be happening and how you can find some relief

Do You Have a Stiff Neck? Try These Simple Remedies
November 29, 2021/Chronic Pain
How to Get Rid of a Stiff Neck

Stretching or applying heat and ice can provide pain relief

man using roller on back
February 4, 2021/Wellness
Massage Rollers and More: How to Ease Neck, Back and Body Pain with Simple Tools

Foam tubes and rubber balls can help when you hurt

woman working from her bed
July 15, 2020/Chronic Pain
If You Simply Must Work From Bed, Here’s What to Consider

Here’s how working from bed impacts your health

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims