Conservative physical therapy management for the treatment of cervicogenic headache: a systematic review

J Man Manip Ther. 2013 May;21(2):113-24. doi: 10.1179/2042618612Y.0000000025.


Purpose: The purpose of this systematic review was to assess the effectiveness of conservative physical therapy management of cervicogenic headache (CGH).

Introduction: CGH affects 22-25% of the adult population with females being four times more affected than men. CGHs are thought to arise from musculoskeletal impairments in the neck with symptoms most commonly consisting of suboccipital neck pain, dizziness, and lightheadedness. Currently, both invasive and non-invasive techniques are available to address these symptoms; however, the efficacy of non-invasive treatment techniques has yet to be established.

Methods: Computerized searches of CINAHL, ProQuest, PubMed, MEDLINE, and SportDiscus, were performed to obtain a qualitative analysis of the literature. Inclusion criteria were: randomized controlled trial design, population diagnosed with CGH using the International Headache Society classification, at least one baseline measurement and one outcomes measure, and assessment of a conservative technique. Physiotherapy evidence-based database scale was utilized for quality assessment.

Results: One computerized database search and two hand searches yielded six articles. Of the six included randomized controlled trials, all were considered to be of 'good quality' utilizing the physiotherapy evidence-based database scale. The interventions utilized were: therapist-driven cervical manipulation and mobilization, self-applied cervical mobilization, cervico-scapular strengthening, and therapist-driven cervical and thoracic manipulation. With the exception of one study, all reported reduction in pain and disability, as well as improvement in function.

Conclusion: Calculated effect sizes allowed comparison of intervention groups between studies. A combination of therapist-driven cervical manipulation and mobilization with cervico-scapular strengthening was most effective for decreasing pain outcomes in those with CGH.

Keywords: Cervicogenic headaches; Conservative management; Physical therapy management; Systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review