According to the World Health Organization the amount of adults suffering from a headache disorder at least once a year is about 50% ( Many times people wonder what causes their specific headache. With the wide range of potential headaches out there it can be tough to know why one may suffer.  I’m going to break down the causes of some of the most common types we see in our office.
Cervicogenic Headache Common Pain Pattern Referral

Common referral patterns for cervicogenic headaches. The black X’s indicate commonly tight areas and the red dots show where the pain is felt.

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Cervicogenic Headache:

A cervicogenic headache is one that’s caused by structures in your neck. This can be irritation to the muscles, bones, or joints of the neck causing referred pain in the head. This irritation can be due to an old neck injury like a motor vehicle accident. You could be holding a sustained neck position for too long like a desk worker who only uses their left computer screen. Another potential cause can be repetitive motions of the neck or shoulders. For example, a cleaner who constantly looks up and down could start to have headaches. These structures of the neck — especially the upper neck, — share similar nerve pathways as the head which can lead to feeling the pain there. It is often one-sided and can be felt in the forehead, ears, eyes, or temple areas.

You may be suffering from this kind of headache if you notice a few key things.

  • Your neck muscles are tight or tender, especially to touch.
  • If your headache is oftentimes one-sided.
  • Your headache brought on by a certain neck movement or when held in one spot for a period of time.
  • Your neck has a limited range of motion.
  • Certain positions or motions can recreate similar headache pain.
  • Certain positions or motions (or lack of motion) can help the headache feel a little better.


Migraines are often perceived as throbbing or pulsating one-sided headaches. They are often accompanied with nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity and sound sensitivity. There can also be neurological symptoms before or during the headache. This is called an aura. An aura can take the form of blind spots, light flashes, or facial tingling. There are certain risk factors that can predispose one to migraines.

  • Female,
  • Having a family history of migraines
  • Having a type-A personality.
  • If you notice you are allergic or sensitive to certain chemicals or foods

There are a couple of different theories about what causes a migraine. These triggers include vasoconstriction of the head and neck vascular system, and brain chemical imbalances.

Migraine Triggers

Common triggers for migraine sufferers are diverse and plentiful. They can vary from situational to thinks like food and drinks. Common food triggers include chocolate, cheese, and red wine. High-stress situations, changes in the weather, or changes in sleep cycles can be other causes. Dehydration is a common trigger. Some women will get a migraine with monthly hormone changes.

Picture of lady with either a migraine or cervicogenic headache

Here is a handy image comparing the symptoms of a migraine vs a more cervicogenic type of headache.

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Man with referral pattern of tension headache illustrated

In the image above these are the common areas where a tension headache is felt. It can wrap around both sides of the head or may be found in one specific spot.

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Tension Headaches:

Tension headaches are often described as feeling like your head is in a vice. Or that you feel like you have a band that wraps around the temple area of the skull. A common factor is feeling like your head is being squeezed. These are often caused by having tight muscles at the base of the skull, called the suboccipitals. When a muscle is chronically tight, it can develop myofascial trigger points. Trigger points are known to refer pain to other parts of the body. At the base of the skull, referred pain travels up into the head.

Tightness in the neck muscles are often due to things like poor posture. This is when your head drifts forward throughout the day leading to muscle fatigue. Poor sleep can also be a factor in creating tension headaches. These can also be caused by factors outside of the muscular system like depression or anxiety, alcohol use, or eye strain.

Stress Factor

Stress is far too common in our lives these days.  Stress can lead to depression, weight gain, loss of sleep, and… HEADACHES!  Finding ways to combat stress is vital to helping these headaches stop recurring.  Find a month worth of ways to combat stress here!

TMJ Headaches:

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. This is the fancy name for your jaw joint. A TMJ headache is when your jaw is the source of the headache. This can be due to many dental issues. Most commonly it is due to muscular tension of the jaw muscles due to things like grinding of the teeth or clenching. Prior trauma to the jaw, aggravation of the TMJ disc that sits between the jaw and skull, or arthritis in the jaw can lead to the referral of pain into regions of the jaw or face.

Common jaw pain locations

Sometimes your jaw may be the source of you headache. The X’s represent where the tightness or trigger point may be and the red area is where the pain is felt.

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The solution

This covers some of the common cause of the various types of headaches we see in our office. We treat patients with these kinds of problems regularly. After completing a history of the problem and performing a physical exam we will determine a treatment plan for your care. Our clinic specializes in an upper cervical technique called Atlas Orthogonal which is very targeted and beneficial for headache treatment. Call or schedule an appointment today to begin the next steps to feeling better.