Occipital neuralgia is a distinct type of headache characterized by piercing, throbbing, or electric-shock-like chronic pain in the upper neck, back of the head, and behind the ears, usually on one side of the head. Typically, the pain of occipital neuralgia begins in the neck and then spreads upwards. Some individuals will also experience pain in the scalp, forehead, and behind the eyes. Their scalp may also be tender to the touch, and their eyes especially sensitive to light. The location of pain is related to the areas supplied by the greater and lesser occipital nerves, which run from the area where the spinal column meets the neck, up to the scalp at the back of the head. The pain is caused by irritation or injury to the nerves, which can be the result of trauma to the back of the head, pinching of the nerves by overly tight neck muscles, compression of the nerve as it leaves the spine due to osteoarthritis, or tumors or other types of lesions in the neck. Localized inflammation or infection, gout, diabetes, blood vessel inflammation (vasculitis), and frequent lengthy periods of keeping the head in a downward and forward position are also associated with occipital neuralgia. In many cases, however, no cause can be found. A positive response (relief from pain) after an anesthetic nerve block will confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment is generally symptomatic and includes massage and rest. In some cases, antidepressants may be used when the pain is particularly severe. Other treatments may include local nerve blocks and injections of steroids directly into the affected area.
Occipital neuralgia is not a life-threatening condition. Many individuals will improve with therapy involving heat, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and muscle relaxants. Recovery is usually complete after the bout of pain has ended and the nerve damage repaired or lessened.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes at the National Institutes of Health conduct research related to pain and occipital neuralgia in their clinics and laboratories and support additional research through grants to major medical institutions across the country. Much of this research focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of pain and testing treatments in order to find better ways to treat occipital neuralgia.