Do you suffer from severe head pain at the base of your skull, or behind your eyes? When related to other symptoms, like blurry vision or light sensitivity, it could be a sign of occipital neuralgia. Treating this painful condition can be difficult because it is often misdiagnosed as typical migraine or headache pain. If you’re looking for information on how to treat occipital neuralgia pain, consider a mix of complementary therapies, such as chiropractic or massage, along with interventional treatments, like occipital nerve blocks. In this post, we cover 21 occipital neuralgia treatments that range from at-home options to surgical options for severe cases.
What is occipital neuralgia?
Occipital neuralgia is a form of sharp and shooting head pain that radiates from the top of the spinal cord to the scalp. It is caused by injury or damage to the occipital nerve, or compression to the nerve root. There are two types: greater and lesser. EPainAssist.com explains that the greater form is:
“A common type of posttraumatic headache, but is also seen in patients without injury. The pressure, aching, stabbing, or throbbing pain may be in a nuchal-occipital, temporal, parietal, frontal, periorbital, or retro-orbital distribution. The headache may last for minutes or hours to days and can be unilateral or bilateral.”
Lesser, on the other hand, refers to pain that occurs laterally over the head. The following image shows where the occipital nerve is situated in relation to the spinal cord, as seen from the back of the skull.
How to treat occipital neuralgia comes down to understanding its causes. These are many. Occipital neuralgia causes may include:
- Injury after car accident
- Overly tight neck muscles
- Compressed nerves in the neck, due to osteoarthritis or other conditions
- Vasculitis, or blood vessel inflammation
- Overuse injuries caused by keeping the head in a down or forward position
Occipital neuralgia symptoms include:
- Chronic headaches
- Pain behind the eye, on one side of the head
- Blurry vision
- Dental pain
- Migraine symptoms
- Sensitivity to light
- Scalp tenderness
- Pain and tight muscles when moving the neck
How to treat occipital neuralgia, a video primer
For more information about this condition and an introduction to basic treatments, check out the video below. We’ll discuss each of these options in detail below.
Living with occipital pain
This is a rare condition. The American Migraine Foundation reports that it only affects 3.2 people out of 100,000 every year. John Hopkins Medicine goes on to explain that though many people will experience migraine pain in the back of, and on one side of the head, the majority of these patients don’t actually suffer from this condition. They note:
“We generally refer to these patients as having migraines involving the greater occipital nerve, rather than as having occipital neuralgia itself.”
After reviewing a complete medical history and any imaging scans, they can make a diagnosis. For those three people who are diagnosed with this condition, however, the pain can be life-changing. Figuring out how to treat occipital neuralgia is a critical goal. But further, many of the methods we discuss in this post for how to treat pain can also be used to reduce and relieve pain in patients who are suffering from migraines involving the greater occipital nerve.
1. Start with your diet
If you’re wondering how to treat occipital neuralgia, or chronic pain conditions of any kind, it always pays to look first at your diet. Empowher.com explains:
“Greater attention to diet, and in particular, B vitamins may help relieve occipital neuralgia by boosting the body’s ability to heal itself. Vitamin B12 aids normal nervous system development and nerve regeneration so some patients take a B12 supplement. Having plenty of fatty acids like fish oils or flax seed oils can be helpful in reducing inflammation around the nerves.”
Other general recommendations for a pain-friendly diet include:
- Staying adequately hydrated
- Eating fresh and unprocessed foods as much as possible
- Reducing your sugar intake
- Incorporating more magnesium into your diet, or take as a supplement
2. Try at-home relaxation methods
Put simply, stress increases pain levels. For milder cases, therefore, start with at-home methods to reduce tension and stress in your body. WebMD recommends resting in a quiet room or applying heat to sore neck muscles. These simple methods likely won’t cure these types of headache, but they can help reduce pain on a day-to-day basis.
3. Incorporate meditation into your day
Meditation is an important treatment method for all chronic pain patients. It incorporates both mind and body approaches to healing, creates relaxation, and can help you more fully understand your pain. Learn more about all the benefits of meditation in our post “Easing Pain And Stress With Mindfulness Meditation.”
4. Book a massage
If simple relaxation doesn’t cut it, take it a step further. A massage can drastically help you reduce tension that could be causing your pain. You can:
- Ask your partner for a massage
- Perform a solo neck and jaw massage
- Spring for a professional massage (look for cheaper massage deals on Groupon!)
5. Learn more about cranial osteopathy
Cranial osteopathy is an advanced form of massage that targets the head specifically. Health expert, Andrew Weil, MD, explains:
“My recommendation would be cranial osteopathy, an osteopathic manipulative technique that I’ve found extremely useful for a wide range of problems, from headaches to hyperactivity in children, disturbed sleep cycles and asthma. Cranial osteopathy works through very gentle pressure applied with the hands to the head. The aim is to free up restrictions in the movement of the cranial bones and allow the subtle natural rhythms of the central nervous system to express themselves in a balanced fashion.
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