Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints in the world, affecting both men and women and occurring at just about any age. It’s tempting to lump all headaches together under one umbrella term, but the fact is, not all headaches are created equal. In fact, headaches can vary a lot just in terms of the type, location, and severity of their symptoms. They can also vary depending on what’s causing them to occur in the first place. Some headaches are primarily caused by muscle tension in your neck and shoulders. Others are related to medications or food allergies. And still others can be caused by illnesses, vision problems, or even lack of sleep.
Occipital headaches are a bit different. The pain you experience with these headaches is caused by your occipital nerves — or more specifically, compression or irritation of these nerves. Interestingly, while lots of people are familiar with migraines and other types of nerve-related headaches, few people know about occipital headaches — what causes them and how they're treated. If you're having chronic headaches, especially in the back of your head, here's how to tell if your occipital nerves might be to blame.
Occipital headaches involve the greater and lesser occipital nerves, two pairs of nerves that travel from your neck to your head. When these nerves become compressed or irritated, you can experience pain and related symptoms anywhere along that nerve pathway. The branches of the occipital nerves travel up the back of your head and around the sides of your head to the areas behind your ears. That means you can have pain in any of these areas, and your scalp may even be tender to the touch. Some people may also experience pain behind their eyes or extra sensitivity to light, similar to the symptoms you can have with a migraine. Pain can occur on both sides of the head or on only one side, depending on which parts of the nerves are involved. And the pain you experience can also vary, ranging from sharp, electricity-like shocks to piercing pain or throbbing aches.
That's how they feel. Now here's why they happen. Interestingly, occipital headaches occur in much the same way as sciatica, a lower back pain that involves the sciatic nerves. In both cases, painful symptoms develop when the nerves are compressed or irritated. That compression can be caused by many factors, including poor posture, car accidents, falls, infections, diabetes, or conditions that affect your cervical spine (the neck part of your spine). Arthritis and degenerative disc disease can cause your vertebrae to compress, narrowing the space where these nerves exit your spine. And sometimes, the cause of the nerve irritation can't be determined.
Before you can treat an occipital headache, you need to be sure that’s what’s causing your pain. Sometimes, your headaches can be diagnosed based on your symptoms. But other times, you might need to have diagnostic imaging like CT scan or MRI to rule out other possible problems, along with blood tests to check for infections. In some cases, we can use a nerve block to both diagnose and treat occipital headaches. Nerve blocks use injections to block pain signals that travel along the nerve. When those signals can’t reach your brain, you won’t interpret them as pain. In diagnosis, if you don’t have any symptom relief following a nerve block, we can pretty much rule out occipital nerve involvement and look for other causes of your pain.
Other types of treatment options include medications like antidepressants, anti-inflammatory medicines, or medicines to relax your muscles. If you have severe muscle spasms, you might benefit from medicines used to treat epilepsy. When medicines don’t work, we may suggest a nerve block or another type of treatment called occipital nerve stimulation. In this treatment, low-grade electrical impulses are transmitted to the nerve to “confuse” nerve signaling, once again preventing those signals from reaching the brain. If we determine your occipital nerves are causing your pain, we’ll tailor a treatment specifically for your needs.
Why live with headache pain when there are so many ways to safely and effectively treat it? At Metro Pain Centers, we help patients relieve chronic headache pain using custom treatment plans and advanced treatment options so they can feel good again. To learn more about the treatments we offer for headaches and other types of chronic pain, book an appointment online today.