Why You Should Never Ignore Upper Cervical Pain and Headaches
If you have upper cervical pain and headaches then the problem is bigger than you might realize.
A headache alone can be a symptom of several different things like dehydration, lack of sleep, or prescription lens problems. However, headaches that always seem to go along with pain near the top of the neck is considered a cervicogenic headache and is more serious than just the pain of the headache.
The actual cause of cervicogenic headaches is irritation of the C2 and C3 nerve roots along with referred pain from the compression of the joints between the occiput and C1, C2, and C3. The nerve roots of C1, C2, and C3 innervate the muscles and skin of the back of the scalp, around the ear, and upper neck so when they get irritated those parts of your head and neck will ache. Similarly, when the (zygapophysial) joints between the first few bones in the spine get compressed they have a distinct pattern of radiating (referred) pain that covers the from the top of the head down to the upper neck.
In addition to the pain, the problem with upper cervical nerve root irritation and joint compression is how it affects the mechanoreception and proprioception to the brain stem. In fact, prolonged disruption of mechanoreception and proprioception (dysafferentation) can cause several other problems that are more serious than headache pain.
Problems with blood pressure, balance, digestion, hormone regulation, and immune system function can all be caused by a problem with the joints in the upper neck.
The way the central nervous system controls the rest of the body heavily depends on the neurological messages it receives from the body.
The nerve messages that are sent from the brain down to the body are called efferent messages. The messages sent from the muscles and joints up to the brain are called afferent messages. These afferent messages give the central nervous system vital information about what is happening around the body so the brain knows what necessary changes to make in order to optimally control the function of the body.
Not all parts of the body send the same number of afferent messages back up to the brain. By far the largest single source of afferent nerve messages come from the joints and muscles of the upper cervical spine. If the vertebrae in the upper neck (C1, C2, C3) are out of normal alignment causing a headache because of the irritation of the nerve roots and joints then there will also be a massive change in the afferent nerve messages going to the brain. This change in afferent information coming from the upper neck (called dysafferentation) will cause the central nervous system to make slight errors in controlling other systems like blood pressure, balance, digestion, hormone regulation, and immune system function.
If you suspect your headaches have something to do with your neck it’s recommended you consult a doctor that can evaluate and treat the upper neck – not just to get rid of your headaches, but to ensure that the other systems linked to your upper neck are working well too.