Head and neck pain could be caused by occipital neuralgia, a non-fatal condition that involves nerve irritation or injury from a variety of causes. The prefix ‘neuro’ means nerve and ‘algia’ means pain, while ‘occipital’ describes a region of the head running from the spinal column in the neck up to the scalp at the back of the head.
There are numerous possible causes of this kind of spreading neck pain and headache resulting from injury or compression of the greater and lesser occipital nerves.
Symptoms of Occipital Neuralgia
Headaches and neck pain can simple be related to strained muscles in the neck, but where the headache involves a piercing or throbbing pain, or a pain that feels like an electric shock up the back of the neck and head, behind the ears and typically on just one side, this makes it likely to be occipital neuralgia. Pain may also occur behind the eyes, in the forehead and scalp, having spread from the neck. The pain of occipital neuralgia is often accompanied by tenderness and light-sensitivity as the occipital nerves are hypersenstive to stimuli.
Causes of Occipital Neuralgia
Causes of occipital neuralgia can include mechanical trauma to the back of the head and neck, cervical spinal stenosis resulting from degenerative spinal changes in the neck, and nerve compression from tight muscles, bone spurs, spinal tumors, lesions, or other issues that put pressure on the nerves. In addition to a physical source of compression that might require neck surgery to address, occipital neuralgia may result from inflammation or infection in the are of the occipital nerves, as well as conditions such as gout and diabetes.
Occipital neuralgia may also occur as a result of vasculitis, a condition where the blood vessels are inflamed. Keeping the head down and forward for long periods of time can also lead to occipital neuralgia.
Treatment of Occpital Neuralgia
Treatment for this condition typically involves identifying the cause of the nerve pain and removing the stressor. This may mean paying more attention to posture, treating an infection, or undergoing neck surgery to relieve nerve compression due to bone spurs from osteoarthritis or other condition.
Eating a well-balanced diet, staying hydrated, and quitting smoking, are also good ways to help address head and neck pain from occipital neuralgia. This means adopting a predominantly plant-based anti-inflammatory diet including plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy whole grains, while avoiding simple sugars and refined carbohydrates, and trans and hydrogenated fats that can increase inflammation.
For most people, rest and neck massage is sufficient to relieve neck and head pain from occipital neuralgia. For others, especially where pain is severe, treatment with antidepressants or injections of steroids or nerve blocks can help. If nerve blocks lead to relief this is confirmation of occipital neuralgia. Natural anti-inflammatories may also help lessen symptoms during recovery.
Prognosis for Occipital Neuralgia
Most people with occipital neuralgia have a full recovery and require no long term treatment. The condition often simply subsides with the application of warm compresses, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and muscle relaxants, especially where tight muscles in the neck are triggering or exacerbating the problem. Headaches and neck pain can also be a sign of more serious illness however, and anyone experiencing severe or persistent pain should seek medical attention to rule out spinal cancer and spinal cord impingement, meningitis, and other potentially fatal conditions.