An occipital headache, or neuralgia, is a condition in which the nerves that run from base of the cervical spine up through the scalp, called the occipital nerves, are inflamed or injured. You might feel pain in the back of your head or the base of your skull.
It can be confused with a migraine or other types of headache, because the symptoms can be similar. But treatments for those conditions are very different, so it’s important to see your doctor to get the right diagnosis.
Warning Signs & Symptoms
Occipital neuralgia can cause intense pain that feels like a sharp, jabbing, electric shock in the back of the head and neck. Other symptoms include:
- Aching, burning and throbbing pain that typically starts at the base of the head and goes to the scalp
- Pain on one or both sides of the head
- Pain behind the eye
- Sensitivity to light
- Tender scalp
- Pain when you move your neck
Possible Risk Factors
Occipital headaches occur when there’s pressure or irritation to your occipital nerves, possibly due to an injury, tight muscles that entrap the nerves, or inflammation. Often, doctors can’t find a cause for it.
Tests to Diagnosis Occipital Headaches
Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and about any injuries you’ve had. They will press firmly around the back of your head to see if they can reproduce your pain. You may also receive a shot to numb the nerve, called a nerve block, to see if it gives you relief. If it works, occipital neuralgia is likely the cause of the pain. You might also have blood tests or an MRI scan if your doctor thinks your case isn’t typical.
You have to get the right diagnosis to get the right treatment. If you have occipital neuralgia and you get a prescription for migraine medication, you may not get relief.
To relieve your pain:
- Apply heat to your neck
- Rest in a quiet room
- Massage tight and painful neck muscles
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs, like naproxen or ibuprofen
- Occipital Nerve Blocks
- Radiofrequency Ablation
If those don’t help, your doctor may prescribe medications for you.
An operation is rare, but it may be recommended if your pain doesn’t get better with other treatments or comes back. Occipital headache is not a life-threatening condition. Most people get relief by resting and taking medication, but if you still feel pain, tell your doctor.