Neck

Can Tight Neck Muscles Cause Dizziness or Headache?

By Last updated on January 4, 2021 Last updated on January 4, 2021 No Comments

DO YOU HAVE NECK PAIN?

Patients can suffering from seemingly unexplainable headaches and dizziness. Sometimes the cause is tight or stiff soft tissue of the neck. 

Soft tissue is characterized as muscle, fat, blood vessels and also supporting tissue that are not bones, joints and cartilage.

Can tight neck muscles cause dizziness or a chronic, persistent headache? Yes, they can. However, it is an unlikely for the diagnosis 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.

Read below to provide insight as to whether your source of discomfort comes from cervicogenic conditions, or something else.

Do You 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. Basically, 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

Do You Have Cervicogenic Dizziness?

Should you consult to your physician with suspicion of having CGD, they would follow a similar thought process:

  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 pathology? 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 apparatus, which is located in the inner ear and is responsible for the sensations of balance and space. Faulty function of the vestibular apparatus can be a cause of dizziness in itself. It is important to note that even if there is an issue with your vestibular apparatus, 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)

As we’ve mentioned before, CGD is very difficult to diagnose, as many of the symptoms overlap with other conditions that may be causing the dizziness.

Mainly, there are two criteria that are characteristic to 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’re 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’re 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 impulsive
    • 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
    • The neck hurts upon movement

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 You Do About CGD or CGH?

The most important question to ask yourself is: what can you do about it? 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’re 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 long-term treatment of both cervicogenic headache and cervicogenic dizziness. However, physical therapy will not produce overnight results, but will allow patients to reduce their symptoms over a period of 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.

In those cases 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.

Let’s explore each available option in more detail.

Lifestyle Changes

If you’re at the point where your neck problems are causing headaches, it is likely that you won’t get away with just lifestyle changes. However, chances are that the headaches and dizziness you’re 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.

Now we all know that fixing a bad posture is not an easy task. If you’ve ever tried to correct your posture, you probably know that it is very difficult to fix it for good—in most cases, as soon as you stop consciously trying, your posture goes back to its original state.

can tight neck muscles cause dizziness

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 cross throughout 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 opton 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. Here are some exercises you may try at home, but it is best to consult with a doctor or medical professional beforehand.

Basically, there are two parts when it comes to physical therapy.

can tight neck muscles cause dizziness

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.

As multiple studies we provided have shown, physical therapy provides long-term relief from cervicogenic headaches and dizziness.

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. The chiropractic approach is detailed here.

While this type of therapy can produce amazing 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.

How Effective Are Physical Therapy and Manual Manipulation Techniques in Relieving Cervicogenic Headaches and Dizziness?

Multiple studies have been performed to assess the effectiveness of physical therapy and manual manipulation to treat cervicogenic headaches and dizziness. Below is an overview of these studies.

How Effective Are Physical Therapy and Manual Manipulation Techniques in Relieving Cervicogenic Headaches and Dizziness?

Sources:

  • Study 1: Effect of treatment of temporomandibular disorders (TMD) in patients with cervicogenic headache: a single-blind, randomized controlled study. (2011) (Source)
  • Study 2: A randomized controlled trial of the effect of spinal manipulation in the treatment of cervicogenic headache. (1995) (Source)
  • Study 3: A randomized controlled trial of exercise and manipulative therapy for cervicogenic headache. (2002) (Source)

Overview of Physical Therapy and Manual Manipulation

To put things briefly:

    • Physical therapy and manual manipulation are extremely effective in reducing cervicogenic headaches and dizziness
    • These treatment techniques provide long-term results with continued use.
    • While many types of physical therapy provide immediate relief, the biggest improvement is seen a few months after the treatment

 

Here at Cellaxys, we provide treatment options that could help you avoid surgical intervention if the problem persists.

Mesenchymal Stem cell and Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) treatments are most effective in combination with physical therapy.

Diagnostic Process

To treat the problem, we first need to understand where the problem is coming from. For cervicogenic headaches and dizziness, there could be a number of causes for the symptoms you’re experiencing.

For the diagnostic process, we use a local anesthetic and steroid injections into several locations in order to discover the exact source of the pain.

Treatment

In certain instances of cervicogenic headaches and cervicogenic dizziness, mesenchymal stem cells can be used in combination with PRP treatment to alleviate the pain.

Since cervicogenic headaches and dizziness can occur due to a number of reasons, the treatment would be different in each case. Physicians at Cellaxys will provide an individualized treatment plan for your symptoms.

Here are the general principles of mesenchymal stem cell therapy:

    • Mesenchymal Stem cells are harvested from your own bone marrow
    • These cells can be enhanced with PRP
    • Mesenchymal Stem cells are concentrated in a centrifuge
    • X-ray and/or ultrasound are used to localize the exact location of the problem
    • Mesenchymal Stem cells (or in combination with PRP) are then injected into that location

The procedure only takes a couple of hours, and most patients see significant relief within a few months, and the effects usually last up to a year.

For more information about stem cell and PRP treatments, click here.

Final Words

Headaches and dizziness caused by spine and neck problems are rare, but they do happen. Cervicogenic headaches and dizziness are usually diagnosed by ruling out other possibilities.

If it is indeed a problem in the neck that’s causing the pain, then it is absolutely necessary to discover the root of the problem. The range of possible causes is wide, and treating the wrong problem can only make the situation worse.

As far as treatment options are concerned, physical therapy, accelerated with mesenchymal stem cell injections and PRP treatment, should be your number one consideration.

Dr. Pouya Mohajer

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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