DIY Help for Cervicogenic Headaches

Both I and my mother with EDS have found that our occasional episodes of severe headaches are related to instability problems in our cervical spines. (See What Are Cervicogenic Headaches?)

Misalignment of the cervical vertebrae can cause pain from the neck up the back of the head and even into the forehead. So it makes sense that:

“muscle strengthening of the deep neck flexors may ameliorate forward head posture, cervicogenic headache, and tension-type headaches.”
(from Cervical Muscle Dysfunction and Head/Neck/Face Pain)

This set of isometric neck exercises can be done sitting in a chair and are much milder than the previous ones I posted (Exercises to Prevent Cervicogenic Headaches). I had my first success with this set of exercises, and they relieved my mother’s headaches too.

She had the same experience I did: as soon as we started doing a few minutes of these isometric neck exercises a few times daily, we stopped getting our usual headaches. For weeks and months, no headaches.

I’m convinced there’s a connection because, when the lack of head/neck pain makes me forget to do these exercises for a few weeks, the headaches return just like before. (See also: Neck Pain: Diagnosis And Management)

I’ve been through this cycle a few times now and hope to eventually make these exercises a permanent routine like brushing teeth. They literally only take a few minutes and can save me from those torturous headaches.

From WebMD (May 2015), here are the neck exercises that can prevent at least some cervicogenic headaches:

The following exercises will help strengthen the muscles in your neck as well as relieve existing neck pain. [or head pain] You don’t need to do every exercise. Do the ones that help you the most.

Dorsal Glide

Dorsal glide stretches the back of the neck. If you feel pain, do not glide so back. You may find this exercise easier to do while lying on your back with an ice pack or a small towel roll under your neck.

  • Sit or stand tall and look straight ahead.
  • Slowly tuck your chin as you glide your head backward over your body.
  • Hold for a count of 6, then relax for up to 10 seconds.
  • Repeat 8 to 12 times.

You’ll need to learn the above extreme chin-tuck position to use in the next exercise. Even though it seems exaggerated, it will protect your neck from damaging movements as you try the next exercise.

Isometric exercise: Hands on head

In an isometric exercise, a force is applied against a resistant object, so that even though tension builds in a specific muscle, there is no movement. You can do isometric exercises to strengthen the muscles of your neck.

For each exercise, keep your neck straight and look straight ahead.

This is the exercise that “fixed” my headaches. I try to do it once or twice a day – for me, that seems to be the “maintenance dose” needed to keep headaches away.

Remember, especially with EDS,
it’s important to apply and release pressure
gradually and gently.

Remember to keep your chin tucked and head held back!

This exercise is only beneficial if you have your neck positioned correctly to begin with, and it works best if you exaggerate the position with the chin tucked and pulled back while doing the exercise.

My neck usually cracks a bit when I do these the first time and then it settles down. Afterward, I feel like my neck has been realigned… from within.

As with chiropractic adjustments, my neck tends to go back to “bad posture” in minutes or hours, but I can do these exercises as needed as often as needed – and they’re free!

  • To exercise muscles at the right side of the neck, put your right hand against the right side or your head above your ear. As you press against the side of your head with your hand, also press your head back against your hand. You should feel the muscles at the side of your neck tighten, but your head should not move to either side.
    Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Hold for about 6 seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat.
  • To exercise muscles at the left side of the neck, do the same steps as in the exercise above, but press your left hand against the left side of your head.
  • To exercise muscles at the back of the neck and upper back, lace your fingers or put one hand over the other and place your hands at the back of your head. Press your hands against your head at the same time you press your head straight back against your hands.
    Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Do not tip your head back. Hold for about 6 seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat.
  • To exercise muscles at the front of the neck, put the heels of both hands against your forehead just above your eyebrows.
  • Press your hands against your forehead at the same time you press your head against your hands.
    Press firmly, but not quite as hard as you can. Do not tip your head forward. Hold for about 6 seconds, rest for up to 10 seconds, then repeat.

Remember to apply and release pressure gradually and gently.

  • Repeat each exercise 8 to 12 times.

If I really felt I had to do these exercises 8-12 times in a session to benefit from them, I doubt I’d do them more than occasionally. But I only do the exercise a couple of times per “session/set”, making it so brief and painless that I can do it more frequently and regularly,

If I start feeling a tightness across the back of my neck and shoulders that signals an impending headache, I do more of these exercises more frequently for a few days and that seems to keep them from “blooming”.

I encourage anyone suffering from cervicogenic headaches to give these a try. Isometric exercises are generally safe because nothing moves and you have complete control over how hard to apply your muscles.

Even if you don’t have headaches, these exercises help us maintain good neck posture.



7 thoughts on “DIY Help for Cervicogenic Headaches

  1. Donnac45

    This is very true. I ran a chiropractic office before I became disabled and having the spine alone is very important. But you also need to be aware that if you have a spinal cord disease like Arachnoiditis and/Or Tarlov Cyst Disease, these adjustments can also cause you to go into a “pain flare” due to the spine manipulation.

    CSF flow disruption can also cause headaches as described in the article. Especially when dealing with spinal cord diseases.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rose

    I have cervicogenic headaches. These sound very interesting. I found my headaches respond to migraine triptan drugs even though they are not classic migraines. Might be worth trying for anyone with a similar problem.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Victoria Shepard

    Thank you again for something I can do with my neck. I have eds3. And am have a gentle isometric exercise program for my joints but was also looking for something for my neck. Glad I ran across this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Knowing I can prevent most of my headaches with exercises gives me a rare and wonderful feeling of control over my pain.

      Of course, if I don’t have headaches for a few months, I forget to do the exercises and then I eventually get a headache again. But I know that if I just do the exercises, even with the headache, the pain will ease within 8 hours and stay gone as long as I exercise a few times a week.

      I hope they work as well for you.


  4. Pingback: New Reference Page for Headaches Related to EDS | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

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