Many people assume any type of chronic head pain is some form of migraine. While a whopping 13 percent of the American population do suffer from this type of head pain, there are other conditions can cause chronic headaches, one of which that doesn't originate in the head at all. Called occipital neuralgia, this condition is caused by inflammation in the occipital nerves located at the top of the spine. Here's more information about this condition and what can be done to treat it.
Head Pain Resulting from Nerve Inflammation
The occipital nerves are located throughout the head and neck area and are responsible for providing sensations to different parts of the scalp, among other things. When the occipital nerves become inflamed, it can result in significant pain in the back of the head and upper part of the neck.
In particular, you may feel sharp, stabbing pain on one side of the head (and sometimes behind the eye), a burning sensation, and the scalp in the affected area may feel tender. If the pain increases when you move your neck, you're most likely dealing with occipital neuralgia. Unfortunately, though, this condition is often misdiagnosed as migraines because they share similar symptoms (e.g. sensitivity to light and sound, and nausea).
Strangely enough, what exactly causes the occipital nerves to become inflamed is not well understood. However, there are many possible sources of irritation. For instance, people who have been in auto accidents and suffered whiplash may develop occipital neuralgia because of direct trauma to the occipital nerves. Arthritis in the cervical spine, infection, and even poor neck support during sleep have also been indicated as possible causes of this condition.
Since occipital neuralgia can easily be confused with other head pain conditions, it's best to get examined by a doctor to confirm you are suffering from this problem. While occipital neuralgia may cause some of the same symptoms as migraines, the two conditions are treated very differently. So, you want to make sure you know what your dealing with before you being investigating possible treatment options.
Alleviating Occipital Neuralgia Pain
The frequency in which you experience occipital neuralgia pain and the severity of the discomfort will dictate the best treatment option for you. Minor pain that only occurs every so often can typically be alleviated with the use of over-the-counter pain medication, such as Aleve, Ibuprofen, and Tylenol. If OTC meds are not helpful, your doctor may prescribe something stronger, such as Codeine or high doses of Naproxen.
More advanced and chronic pain may call for nerve blocking injections by someone like Joel D Stein DO PA. This involves injecting a local anesthetic directly into the inflamed occipital nerve which inhibits it from sending pain signals to the brain. You'll obtain relief from the pain for up to 12 weeks before you need to return to the doctor for another treatment. Participating in an interventional injection treatment program can make this option more manageable and may even extend the amount of time you're pain free.
For pain that doesn't respond to other treatments, your doctor may recommend a few types of surgery. One involves opening up the area and moving blood vessels that may be pressing on the occipital nerve and causing the headaches. Alternatively, the doctor may install an electrical device designed to stimulate the occipital nerves which, in turn, blocks the pain messages the nerves are sending to the brain.
While not a life-threatening condition, occipital neuralgia can make life very difficult for people who are affected by it, particularly if the condition also results in aggravation of the trigeminal nerve that runs through the face. If you suffer from the symptoms of this condition, make an appointment with your healthcare provider right away to get diagnosed and explore the treatment options available.