Occipital neuralgia is a relatively rare condition that can cause intense head pain, especially at the base of the skull. Sufferers may also experience pain behind one eye, blurry vision, or light sensitivity. While occipital neuralgia causes aren’t well-understood, there are some known sources that can lead to this condition. These are 8 of the most common, along with information on diagnosing and treating this condition.
What causes occipital neuralgia?
Occipital neuralgia is also called an occipital headache or occipital neuritis, but all of these names point to a pain condition that originates in the occipital nerves.
At the most basic level, occipital neuralgia is caused by irritation, inflammation, or injury to the occipital nerves. These nerves run from the neck, up through the back of the skull (shown in yellow below). Most often, it’s related to a pinched nerve root in the neck, severely tight neck muscles, or a prior injury.
The most common occipital neuralgia causes
While irritation, inflammation, and injury are the direct cause of this condition, this doesn’t explain exactly how it occurs. Specific conditions or injuries are more likely to lead to this condition. That being said, occipital neuralgia causes are still not well-understood and no clear consensus has been reached on a direct cause. Oftentimes, patients have symptoms with no known related conditions or past history of injury or trauma.
However, some common occipital neuralgia causes have been hypothesized, including:
- Injury to the head and neck
- Overly tight neck muscles
- Blood vessel inflammation
- Tumors and infections
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
One of the most common causes of occipital neuralgia is injury or severe trauma to the back of the head. If you’re undergoing diagnosis, your doctor will specifically ask about any known trauma or injuries that could have led to your pain. This can occur during a fall, car accident, sport injury, or other event.
An injury can pinch or irritate the nerves in the back of the neck, leading to this specific type of pain. Always talk to your doctor after experiencing any head or neck trauma.
Related to injury is whiplash. This is a severe form of trauma where the neck is thrown backwards and forwards far beyond its normal range of motion. Whiplash can occur during rear-end collisions or other high-force events. This extreme motion can lead to excessively tight muscles, irritation to the nerves, or inflammation.
Other symptoms of whiplash may include shoulder pain and stiffness, memory loss, ringing in the ears, and dizziness. Talk to a doctor immediately if you believe you’ve suffered from whiplash.
3. Overly tight neck muscles
Occipital neuralgia is caused by irritation or inflammation of the occipital nerves that run up through the neck, specifically through the second and third vertebrae. Overly tight or strained muscles in these areas can directly lead to entrapment and compression of the nerves.
You may suffer from overly tight neck muscles if you work in an environment where you keep your head constantly in a downwards or forward position. Many office workers struggle with this, from excessive leaning forwards toward their computer screens. Others may experience in this repetitive, manual-type jobs.
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