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Can Tight Neck Muscles Cause Dizziness or Headache?

By Last updated on September 16th, 2022September 16th, 2022No Comments

At any given moment, people can suffer from what seems to be unexplainable headaches and dizziness. This phenomenon may be thought to come from inside the head, however, the cause may be from is tight or stiff soft tissues of the neck. 

However, it is unlikely for your dizziness or headache to be solely tight cervical (neck) muscles, as the overarching conditions that connect neck stiffness to these symptoms tend to be more complex. Often, tight neck muscles are a symptom of a wider condition that could cause dizziness or headache.

These conditions—called cervicogenic dizziness and cervicogenic headache, respectively—are rare, as only up to 2.5% of the population have them.

However, among those who seek medical relief from dizziness or headaches, these conditions can be a common diagnosis. Cervicogenic disorders can dramatically reduce one’s quality of life, and produce a wide array of symptoms as detailed in this scientific journal.

It must be noted that both of these conditions are significantly more prevalent in patients over 40 years old.

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Do I Have Cervicogenic Dizziness?

Do I Have Cervicogenic Dizziness?

Cervicogenic dizziness (CGD) is a rare condition that is caused by a particular problem in the upper spine and neck areas, such as poor posture, natural wear-and-tear associated with age, or sustained strain such as weightlifting or other exercise activities. The dizziness is often accompanied by neck pain and headaches.

To diagnose CGD your doctor will first rule out other causes of neck pain and dizziness. Cervicogenic dizziness is diagnosed by a method of exclusion:

  • There is an evident problem in the neck area
  • Normal imaging from X-ray or other imaging technologies
  • No other preexisting conditions can explain the dizziness

Should you consult your physician with suspicion of having CGD, they will consider the following factors: 

  1. Do you have neck pain? As CGD is often associated with neck pain, the diagnosis is usually ruled out if you do not feel any discomfort in the neck, besides stiffness.
  2. Do you have a history of neck disorders? Cervical dizziness rarely surfaces as a sudden, overnight condition. Your doctor will first look for is clues regarding previous neck problems in your medical history. While researching your medical records, the physician will also look for other pathological disorders that could explain the dizziness.
  3. Cervical spine tests: If the doctor finds evidence that indeed it may be a spine problem that’s causing the dizziness, you will be referred to perform several tests to further establish whether there’s an injury or other type of problem in your neck area.
  4. Vestibular assessment: If the previous tests are negative, the physician will evaluate the function of your vestibular system, which is located in the inner ear and is responsible for the sensations of balance and space. The faulty function of the vestibular system can be a cause of dizziness in itself. It is important to note that even if there is an issue with this, you may have CGD as well—you could be suffering from two sources of dizziness at the same time.
  5. Detailed cervical spine examination: If your vestibular function is normal, a number of more detailed spine tests will be performed to further evaluate the issue. These tests will explore things like joint mobilization, manual traction, and palpation.
  6. CGD: If up to this point all evidence supports the hypothesis that it is indeed a cervical problem that’s causing the dizziness, your doctor may conclude your diagnosis as cervicogenic dizziness. Remember, there are no CGD-specific tests as it is a diagnosis of exclusion.

Cervicogenic Dizziness Symptoms (Only CGD)

CGD is very difficult to diagnose, as many of the symptoms overlap with other conditions that may be causing dizziness.

Mainly, there are two criteria that are characteristic of CGD:

  • Dizziness lasts from a few minutes to an hour
  • The symptoms involve dizziness and disorientation

Symptoms of Alternative Diagnoses (Not Necessarily CGD)

That being said, there is a number of other spine and neck conditions that may be causing the dizziness.

If you’re feeling any of the following symptoms (along with dizziness and disorientation) then chances are you are suffering from a diagnosis similar to, but not necessarily, CGD:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Significant vertigo (the sensation of spinning) that changes in relation to head position
  • Speech problems
  • Sensation changes
  • Hearing loss
  • Exhaustion

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms in addition to dizziness and headaches seek medical attention immediately.

Do You Have a Cervicogenic Headache?

The relationship between a chronic headache and neck pain or stiffness is usually more obvious and more easily diagnosed than between dizziness and neck problems.

To put things into perspective, this relationship goes both ways—which means that neck pain can be caused by a neurological problem, or you could experience a headache because of the problems in the cervical area.

The second case is called cervicogenic headache (CGH).

CGH surfaces as a deep, chronic headache. The pain usually starts out in the back of the head and progresses towards the frontal lobe. It must be noted that the pain usually resides unilaterally, or only on one side of the head.

Here are some of the common symptoms of cervicogenic headaches:

  • The headache only resides on one side of the head/face
  • The pain is steady, not varied
  • The pain starts out in the back of the head and progresses towards the front
  • Instances of chronic pain can last for hours to days
  • The neck is stiff and has reduced flexibility
  • The neck hurts upon movement
  • Blurred vision in the eye of the affected side of the head

Cervicogenic headache can feel similar to a migraine, which is why the two are often confused. Most instances of cervicogenic headaches are triggered by a sudden neck movement, but the underlying causes are usually systematic.

Here are some of the most common causes for this type of headache:

  • Problems with the bones in your neck
  • Joint wear-and-tear
  • Sudden shock or trauma
  • Significant stress on the neck
  • Bad posture
  • Arthritis

What Can I Do About CGD or CGH?

You may be wondering what you could possibly do about CGD or CGH. Luckily, there are a number of ways to approach this problem. As with many pain disorders, solutions in regards to cervicogenic dizziness and cervicogenic headache may start with lifestyle changes. In particular, your posture and your activity level will affect your symptoms.

If you are suffering from moderate to high levels of dizziness or headaches, then it might make sense to explore treatment options that will produce more immediate results.

Physical therapy has been proven to be very effective in the long-term treatment of both cervicogenic headache and cervicogenic dizziness. Physical therapy will not produce overnight results but will allow patients to reduce their symptoms over time. Massage therapy may be used in combination to reduce symptoms.

For those who are suffering from severe headaches or dizziness even more immediate treatment options may be needed. Your physician may prescribe a medication regimen or refer you for a surgical consultation. However, surgical intervention rarely provides long-term benefits. In fact, most surgeries only offer temporary pain relief.

Lifestyle Changes

If you’re at the point where your neck problems are causing headaches, it is likely that you require significant lifestyle changes. Chances are that the headaches and dizziness you are experiencing are closely linked to your day-to-day habits.

One of the most important things that you should monitor in your daily activities is your posture.

Bad posture (while standing, walking, or sitting) eventually adds to cervical disc wear-and-tear by applying unnecessary stress to the spinal discs. Bad posture may also cause a bone or soft tissue to compress a spinal nerve, which can be the root cause of the headaches in itself.

Fixing a bad posture is not an easy task. In most cases, as soon as you stop consciously trying, your posture goes back to its original state. Luckily, there are several methods you could use to fix your posture.

To address your poor standing and walking posture, one of the things you could try is to use a wall to teach yourself the correct posture.

In this method what you do is place the entirety of your back against the wall. The back of your head, your shoulder blades, and your buttocks should all be touching the wall, while your heels are 2 to 4 inches away from the wall. Do this a few times a day for several minutes to begin understanding what proper posture feels like.

Another method you can try is placing your body weight on the balls of your feet, towards your toes. When we place most of our weight on the heels, we tend to slouch. Inversely, when we’re balancing on our toes, our posture improves significantly.

You could also go ahead and try a few alternative methods. For example, you could tape a plus sign across your entire back. This way, whenever you would start to slouch, you would feel tension. You can use duct tape, but be aware that this may cause damage to the skin. 

Investing in medical tape or athletic tape (also called kinesiology tape or KT tape) is a safer option and can be found in most drug stores. There are also specific devices, similar to a back brace, which are designed to keep your posture nice and straight at all times.

When sitting down, there are also a few tricks you can use to keep your back straight. For example, try sitting on your palms. Instinctively, this will keep your back straight. Also, when in a seated position, make sure your feet are flat on the ground, facing forward. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor.

Physical Therapy and Chiropractic Manipulation

When it comes to physical therapy, the goal is to stretch, strengthen, and straighten up your back. Basically, there are two parts when it comes to physical therapy.

The first part is where you actually do the exercises. A physical therapist will create an exercise plan and supervise your progress. During physical therapy, it is not uncommon to perform exercises that strengthen your core and your back muscles, while simultaneously stretching out your back and relieving pressure. All of these exercises and stretches will lead to a better posture with continued use.

There is also the other type of physical therapy, where manipulations of the neck and spinal joints are performed. These manipulations can be performed by a physical therapist or a specialized physician called a chiropractor.

While this type of therapy can produce immediate results, patients with undiagnosed chronic neck problems should be cautious when pursuing these types of treatments. For example, patients with carotid artery stenosis or advanced osteoarthritis could experience additional complications from chiropractic sessions.

The Role Regenerative Medicine Plays With CGD or CGH

To treat the problem, we first need to understand where the problem is coming from. For cervicogenic headaches and dizziness, there could be several causes for the symptoms you are experiencing. Regenerative medicine provides a less invasive and less painful alternative to conventional treatments.

Nowadays, two types of regenerative therapies are popular for cervicogenic headaches and cervicogenic dizziness. These include cell-based therapies and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy.

At CELLAXYS, we perform both of these therapies:

Cell-Based Therapies

Also known as stem-cell therapies, this form of treatment includes harvesting healthy cells from the patient, processing them, and returning them to the injury site. There are two types of cell-based therapies that use the patient’s own cells or “autologous” tissues, so there is a high chance the patient’s body will accept the cells. 

The two types of cell-based therapies are:

  • Minimally Manipulated Adipose Tissue (MMAT) transplant: It harvests healthy cells from your adipose (fat) tissue, processes them, and returns them to the injury site. One great benefit of MMAT is that it can be performed in multiple places within the same procedure. 
  • Bone Marrow Concentrate (BMAC): It takes healthy and highly concentrated cells from your bone marrow and replaces them with damaged tissues. 

Both cell-based therapies are performed within 1.5 to 2 hours. They are outpatient procedures, meaning you can go home after the process. The doctors use live X-rays and ultrasounds to detect the transplant location. 

Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) Therapy

PRP therapy isolates platelets from the patient’s blood plasma, concentrates them, and returns them to the injury site. Platelets are healing elements of the body that release chemical signals to attract healing cells from the blood. 

They also contain 10 Growth Factors to promote the development of new tissues and produce a web-like structure called fibrin. Fibrin is a scaffolding that supports the growth of healthy tissues. PRP is a popular treatment of orthopedic and spine-related injuries. It is performed within 45 minutes and is an outpatient procedure. 

Most patients see significant relief after both regenerative therapies within a few months, and the effects usually last up to a year. Since cervicogenic headaches and dizziness can occur for many reasons, the treatment would differ in each case. Physicians at Cellaxys will provide an individualized treatment plan for your symptoms.

Dr. Pouya Mohajer

Director of Regenerative Interventional Spine Medicine
Board certification in Anesthesiology and Interventional Pain Medicine
Fellowship-trained from Harvard University
UCLA Alumni

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