Occipital Neuralgia Causes Treatment

Occipital Neuralgia: Causes, Picture, Symptoms and Treatment

Are you suffering from sudden headaches that cause intense pain? Then, you suffer from occipital neuralgia (ON). It is a rare type of disorder triggering severe headaches in people. The condition affects three out of one lakh people around the world. You can confuse the pain with migraine as it affects one side of your head. But, it differs from other types of headaches as it triggers quickly. So, a simple touch can lead to severe pain. The lightest touch like brushing the hair can cause you headaches. The pain can last for a few seconds to a few minutes. So, you can suffer from a brief attack of headache, which can trigger intense pain due to ON. Want to know more information that helps you distinguish the headache from others? Then, read ahead to learn in detail about the type of headache and the ways to deal with it.

What Is Occipital Neuralgia (ON)?

When you suffer from sudden headaches that trigger throbbing, piercing pain (resembling electric shocks), it means you have ON. You can experience the pain mainly at the back of your head. So, you feel pain in the upper neck or behind the ears. ON headaches only affects one side of your head. The pain stems from the occipital nerves, which runs from the top region of the spinal cord to the scalp. Therefore, the pain starts from the neck and spreads to other areas. Occipital neuralgia can make your scalp tender to touch. You can also experience light sensitivity. Therefore, the problem can cause severe distress. The sudden headaches make it difficult for you to perform your everyday activities. Though you suffer from immense pain, it never results in fatal complications. It is not a life-threatening condition. With proper medical care, you can manage the condition and prevent it from affecting your life.

Symptoms Of Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia Occipital neuralgia can trigger pain in your head, which resembles migraines. The sudden, intense, and severe pain can last for a few seconds to minutes. The piercing, sharp, and stabbing pain can make you feel distressed. Though the pain fades after some time, you can experience tenderness around the affected nerves. ON affects only one side of your head compared to the other side. You can experience other signs associated with occipital neuralgia like:

The symptoms of ON differ from one person to another. While some people may have mild symptoms, others can experience severe signs. In most cases, people confuse the intense pain as migraine. Remember, unlike other headaches, you may not suffer from eye redness or eye-watering. It is the symptom common to other headaches. Therefore, you can distinguish the tension headaches and ON due to the absence of redness or watery eyes. The dull throbbing and stabbing pain can last seconds, minutes or even hours. But, ON can cause tenderness in the affected nerves, which you can experience even after the pain fades. Some people experience the other symptoms associated with ON long past the pain episodes.

Causes Of Occipital Neuralgia

When you suffer from any health problem, you first think about what caused it. You try to understand the different factors that can lead to the condition. Similarly, if you suffer from occipital neuralgia, then you need to know the exact reason causing it. You experience the headache due to the pinched nerves at the base of your neck. Several reasons can result in pinched nerves, including muscle tightness, injury or trauma to the head/neck. Inflammation of the nerve can also result in ON. The pinched nerves and inflammation are the direct factors that result in headaches. You can also experience the problem due to chronic neck tension. Read ahead to know the different causes that result in ON.


The injury or trauma to the head can lead to ON. It is the common cause of your sudden and intense headaches. You can get the injury from a fall, a sports injury or car accident. The injuries to the head or neck resulting in inflammation of the nerves. Therefore, it leads to pinching of the nerves. You can suffer from pain and the subsequent symptoms due to pinching of nerves.

Stressed Nerves

When you work on your desk or computer, you tend to sit with your head leaning forward. You can also lean the head downwards. The poor posture can strain the muscles in your neck and affects the nerves in the region. So, it results in pinched nerves. People performing repetitive manual jobs can also suffer from nerve compression. The stressed or compressed nerve can trigger ON.

Arthritic Conditions

Arthritic Conditions

Arthritis is the condition causing inflammation in the joints. Some type of arthritis can affect your spine. So, when you suffer from rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis, you can suffer from compressed nerves. The underlying condition can lead to spine deterioration due to prolonged inflammation or advancing age. So, you can suffer from problems with the uppermost part of your spinal column (cervical spine). The degeneration of the arthritic condition can cause stiffness over time. Therefore, it can put pressure as well as a strain on your occipital nerves. You can suffer from headaches as a result of the condition.


Diabetes occurs when you have high blood sugar levels. It is the disease that can cause inflammation of nerves (neuropathy). Depending on the high levels of sugar, you can experience damage to the nerves throughout your body. People with diabetes always face an increased risk of neuropathy. The occipital nerve can also get affected due to diabetes. So, you can experience stabbing pain on one side of your head.

Tumors and Infections

Though ON can occur due to a tumor as well as infection, it comes under the rare category. The tumors you develop in your cervical spine can put a strain on your occipital nerves. Therefore, you can feel pain at the base of your neck or on one side of your head. While infections can cause trauma to the occipital nerve. The tumors and infection are a serious condition that needs immediate treatment. It is a life-threatening condition that requires medical attention as soon as possible. Therefore, when you detect a lump in your throat or neck, see a doctor. Other signs like trouble swallowing or sore throat that does not go away with treatment also indicate a serious problem.

Studies have not confirmed any exact or direct reasons for ON. Therefore, the possible causes of the problem still remain inconclusive. You experience the stabbing pain in your head without any caused discussed above. Therefore, the exact reasons for occipital neuralgia still remain a mystery.

Diagnosing Occipital Neuralgia

Some headaches can not only cause you severe distress but also indicates a serious health condition. Issues like a brain tumor or brain cancer can trigger headaches. Therefore, you need to eliminate the presence of such complications. Visit your doctor if you suffer from sudden and stabbing headaches. Your doctor can perform some diagnostic test to rule out the presence of other problems. It is important to make a proper diagnosis for getting suitable treatment. You may not find relief from ON if you take migraine medications. It is essential to diagnose the condition properly. So, your doctor can suggest the following tests as a single test alone cannot detect the problem:

Physical Assessment

The doctor performs the physical assessment to check for the signs you have experienced. You need to divulge the details of your medical history for a proper diagnosis. Your doctor asks certain questions to detect the underlying conditions. Since migraines and ON have similar signs, your doctor performs a physical test to diagnose the problem precisely. So, the medical professional presses your occipital regions. If you experience pain, as a result, to pressure in the area, then you suffer from occipital neuralgia.

Sophisticated Imaging Tests

Imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs can offer comprehensive images. It will help determine the specific cause that leads to the symptoms of ON. By detecting the exact underlying problem, your doctor can come up with a treatment plan.

Nerve Block Test

Nerve Block Test

The nerve block test can also help the medical professional with a conclusive diagnosis. Your doctor can give you a shot of nerve block in the occipital area. It numbs the nerve and offers you relief from the pain if you suffer from ON. Therefore, the test can only offer pain relief to a patient suffering from ON.

Treatment Options Available For Occipital Neuralgia

You have a wide variety of treatment options available to deal with ON. The doctor opts for the best treatment plan that can offer you immense relief from the pain. In most cases, your doctor suggests the conservative therapies to offer relief from the pain. The non-invasive treatment option can provide relief from the occipital neuralgia in the majority number of patients. Only a few patients require invasive therapies to get relief from the pain. As each person differs from the other, the treatment response can also vary. Remember, the headache caused by ON never leads to other complicated neurological conditions. So, even if you leave it untreated, it does not cause any lasting or fatal complication. You need to seek treatment to get relief from the pain.

Home Treatment

It is the first line of treatment suggested by your doctor to relieve ON. The doctor recommends trying the option before opting others. Hot and cold compress therapy can offer relief from the local inflammation and pain. Never use the hot/cold compress for more than twenty minutes. You need to tuck an ice pack. Place it under the base of the skull. You need to lie down while using ice therapy. It can offer you relief.

Heat therapy can offer good relief compared to ice therapy. When you apply heat compress on the area of pain, it reduces the muscle tightness. It happens because the heat dilates the local blood vessels. So, it increases the blood flow and offers you relief from pain. Never place heat or cold directly as it can affect your skin. Always use a barrier like a towel between the compress and your skin.

NSAIDS For Pain Relief

You can take nonsteroidal inflammatory drugs to get relief from the headache. So, over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve) can reduce inflammation. So, you can get relief from the distressing pain. Remember to follow the instructions provided on the labels clearly. You can develop dependency issues by using a painkiller. So, you need to discuss taking the medications with your doctor. The clear guidance from your doctor can help you avoid any complications.

Nerve Blocks

Neural blockade or nerve blocks can help you manage different types of pain. The procedure often involves injection or medications that successfully block the pain. It targets specific nerves like the occipital area. It is mostly opted by your doctor when conservative methods fail. The local anesthetic can offer immediate relief. The treatment can provide relief for up to twelve weeks.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy involves exercises that can help you prevent the occurrence of headaches. It also helps you get through the pain and other symptoms associated with ON. The physical therapist is a professional who can teach you such exercises to reduce tension as well as reduce the pain. So, physical therapy has different forms that offer you relief:



It is one of the common forms of physical therapy that will help you relieve pain. It can help you overcome occipital neuralgia. Massaging can hit areas that get affected due to the problem. You can alleviate pain as it enhances nerve blood flow. It also improves oxygen flow in the key spots. So, the increased oxygen and blood flow can help heal the damaged nerves. You can even place a rolled towel under your head as well as neck. You can lie down on your back with the rolled towel to relieve the pain. It provides a gentle massage to your neck. But, if you feel no relief or it aggravates your pain, then stop it immediately.

Back And Neck Exercises

You can complete neck and back exercises to overcome the pain. It is another form of physical therapy that can strengthen the back muscles as well neck. So, it helps you to maintain better posture. Poor posture leads to ON. It is specifically true for people who hunch over or bend their neck down while working. The posture puts excess pressure on the nerve. It results in a frequent headache. With the exercise, you can overcome the pinching of nerves and subsequent pain.

Pulsed Radiofrequency (PRF)

It is one of the safest techniques that stimulate your occipital nerve. The stunning of the powerful nerve prevents it from sending pain signals. The method uses high-frequency current to reduce the pain. You can experience flaring up of pain after undergoing the technique. But, after some time the pain reduces. It is a safe treatment, which does not cause any damage to your tissues or nerves.


Your doctor can prescribe tricyclic and antiepileptic antidepressants that can successfully reduce the signs. So, you can get relief from occipital neuralgia symptoms that cause you distress.

Depending on the cause, your doctor may recommend surgery to decrease pressure on the nerves. For instance, nerve compression due to osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis of the cervical spine may be eased through a surgical procedure.

Preventing Occipital Neuralgia

How can you prevent ON? It is the main question that runs through your mind while learning more about the headaches. The actual reason triggering occipital neuralgia remains unknown. Therefore, it is not possible to determine the exact measures to prevent the problem. But, you can adopt some steps that will help you prevent the condition to an extent.

Recognize Factors

You need to recognize the factors that can contribute to the pain. Identify the issues that cause muscle tension in your neck. It is also essential to avoid circumstances, which can lead to injury or trauma to your neck.

Avoid Stress

Stress can trigger several problems in your body. Excess pressure in your personal and professional life can cause tightness in your muscles. Therefore, you need to relieve stress from your life.

Healing At Home

You can adopt some home remedies that will offer you relief from persistent headaches. You can alleviate the pain and tightness in the muscles using the following:

  • Rest
  • Massage
  • Warm Compress

The home techniques can work out the kinks. So, it alleviates the pressure from your neck and overcomes the pain caused due to occipital neuralgia.

You can follow the simple steps to get relief from the annoying pain. You can try to prevent the pain from worsening by following the pointers discussed above.


Occipital neuralgia is a condition that can trigger immense pain. It may not cause any fatal complications. But, the pain can pull you back from performing your activities well. You need to access medical help as soon as possible. It will help you get the right treatment from the wide range of options available. The right treatment can help you manage the condition properly. So, you can perform your everyday task without the pain holding you back. It is better to seek the advice of your doctor when you experience symptoms. It will help you deal with the condition and live your life happily.

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