- What Is It?
- How to Get Rid of
- Keto Diet
- Can It be Cured?
What is an occipital neuralgia headache?
Occipital neuralgia is a form of headache that causes pain along the upper neck and back of the head. The pain is in the distribution of the nerves known as occipital nerves (sensory nerves that run from the upper part of the neck to the back of the head).
The pain of an occipital neuralgia headache can be;
- burning, or
- can feel sharp and stabbing.
Sometimes, this condition is referred to as occipital neuritis, suggesting there are some associated inflammatory changes that have affected the occipital nerves.
Occipital neuralgia is not serious. This type of headache does not lead to other neurological conditions or nerve problems, even if left untreated.
What does occipital neuralgia feel like?
Pain along the neck where it meets the skull, as well as pain along the back of the head and neck people with occipital neuralgia usually have.
- The pain might be one-sided or bilateral (located on both sides of the head).
- The pain might be sharp or stabbing or feel like an electric shock along the nerve.
- Sometimes the pain is a dull aching or throbbing.
- The pain often can travel along the side of the head, sometimes as far forward as the forehead.
- There can be some symptoms that are frequently seen with migraine headaches or other headaches, including sensitivity to light or sound, or scalp tenderness.
- People with an occipital neuralgia headache may have increased pain when moving their necks.
If the pain caused by occipital neuralgia travels along the side of the head to the face, it might initially be mistaken for a condition known as trigeminal neuralgia. However, physical examination and assessment of the history of the pain should reveal important differences that will help lead to the correct diagnosis.
What triggers an occipital neuralgia headache?
The cause of occipital neuralgia is poorly understood. It is thought to occur when the occipital nerves become irritated or inflamed. There can be many different causes and triggers of this nerve irritation, including;
- whiplash or another injury to the neck,
- injury to the back of the head,
- muscle spasm or recurrent muscle tightness,
- arthritis of the cervical spine, or
- other structural changes to the upper cervical spine.
Infrequent causes of this type of headache can include;
- infection, or
- inflammation of different blood vessels.
- FDA Panel Backs RSV Vaccine for Infants, Some Toddlers
- Seniors: Stay Social, Active for 'Optimal Aging,' Study Shows
- Diabetes Med Metformin Might Help Prevent Long COVID
- Disability a Growing Concern for U.S. Cancer Survivors
- Smoke From Wildfires Is Especially Tough If You Have Asthma. Here’s How to Protect Yourself
- More Health News »
How do you get rid of occipital neuralgia headache?
If the pain persists, daily medications to help calm the nerve may be used. These medications can include
- anti-seizure medications or
- Occipital nerve blocks using an injection of a local anesthetic and a steroid agent may be performed. These often are quite successful in relieving chronic pain for several weeks or months at a time.
When combined with physical therapy, massage, daily stretching, strengthening exercises, and other conservative measures, people with this type of headache can often do well for many weeks or months at a time. Some people find that a one-time course of physical therapy or a single nerve block alleviates their pain completely.
If the pain from an occipital neuralgia headache fails to respond to conservative treatment options, there are several more invasive therapies that have been shown to be successful. These include:
- Rhizotomy (destroying the nerve root to eliminate the pain)
- Neurolysis (applying heat, freezing the nerve, or applying different chemicals to the nerve to block the transmission through the nerve)
- Implanting an occipital nerve stimulator (similar to a TENS unit).
Decompression surgery to open the area around the nerve also can be performed.
Symptomatic treatment options
Although a specific cure for occipital neuralgia does not exist, there are many effective symptomatic treatment options.
The medical treatment for occipital neuralgia can vary. Often, conservative treatments are used as first-line options, including;
- physical therapy,
- muscle relaxants, and
- anti-inflammatory medications.
What procedures and tests diagnose an occipital neuralgia headache?
- There is no test to specifically diagnose or confirm occipital neuralgia.
- The diagnosis is made on physical examination findings such as a marked tenderness to pressure along the occipital nerve; palpation of this region often will reproduce or worsen the pain that the patient is experiencing.
- If the patient has tenderness over the distribution of the greater occipital nerve is important in making this diagnosis. There may be some associated muscle tightness or spasms in the neck region.
- Some doctors perform a nerve block using a local anesthetic to see if this will eliminate or relieve the pain, helping to confirm the diagnosis.
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter
Will a ketogenic (keto) diet help reduce inflammation and pain from an occipital neuralgia headache?
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat diet that drastically restricts carbohydrates. It produces a reaction in the body that is similar to fasting. The low-carb, high-fat keto diet causes the metabolic state known as ketosis, in which substances known as ketones or ketone bodies accumulate in the blood. These are the same substances that accumulate during ketoacidosis (a medical emergency) in people with type 1 diabetes.
A ketogenic diet has been shown to be effective in treating seizure disorders that have not responded to two different antiseizure medications. While this treatment is most often used in children, some adults with seizure disorders may also be helped by a ketogenic diet. Recent studies have explored the ability of ketogenic diets to reduce inflammation and pain from occipital neuralgia.
A ketogenic diet is typically not recommended for weight control because it is not superior to other more standard weight management plans and may be associated with health risks, including nutritional deficiencies.
Most ketogenic diets permit foods high in saturated fat, including;
- processed meats,
- fatty cuts of meat, for example;
- red meat,
- lard, and
Usually, a ketogenic diet also includes unsaturated fats like;
- oily fish,
- seeds, and
- plant oils.
Can Occipital neuralgia be cured?
- For most people, conservative therapy or occipital nerve blocks are quite effective in relieving their pain.
- For others, more invasive therapies can be quite successful.
- As with many other conditions, the response to treatments can vary widely.
- Occipital neuralgia is not serious. This type of headache does not lead to other neurological conditions or nerve problems, even if left untreated.
Migraines and Headaches Resources
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
American Association of Neurological Surgeons. "Occiptal Neuralgia." Updated: Feb 2013.
Masino, SA, et al. Ketogenic Diets and Pain. J Child Neurol. 2013 Aug;28(8): 993-1001.
Top Occipital Neuralgia Related Articles
Arthritis (Joint Inflammation)Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints. When joints are inflamed they can develop stiffness, warmth, swelling, redness and pain. There are over 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout.
CT Scan (Computerized Tomography)A CT scan is an X-ray procedure that combines many X-ray images with the aid of a computer to generate cross-sectional and three-dimensional images of internal organs and structures of the body. A CT scan is a low-risk procedure. Contrast material may be injected into a vein or the spinal fluid to enhance the scan.
CT Scan vs. MRI
CT scan (computerized tomography) is a procedure that uses X-rays to scan and take images of cross-sections of parts of the body. CT scan can help diagnose broken bones, tumors or lesions in areas of the body, blood clots in the brain, legs, and lung, and lung infections or diseases like pneumonia or emphysema.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is a procedure that uses strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency energy to make images of parts of the body, particularly, the organs and soft tissues like tendons and cartilage.
Both CT and MRI are painless, however, MRI can be more bothersome to some individuals who are claustrophobic, or suffer from anxiety or panic disorders due to the enclosed space and noise, the machine makes.
MRI costs more than CT, while CT is a quicker and more comfortable test for the patient.
HeadacheHeadaches can be divided into two categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches. Migraine headaches, tension headaches, and cluster headaches are considered primary headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by disease. Headache symptoms vary with the headache type. Over-the-counter pain relievers provide short-term relief for most headaches.
Migraine TriggersDo you have frequent headaches? Learn the most common headache triggers for tension headaches, sinus headaches, cluster headaches and migraine. They include red wine, skipping meals, and smoke. Find medical treatments that work, like diet, exercise, massage, and physical therapy.
Headaches QuizIf you're plagued with headaches, our Headaches Quiz may help you identify causes, triggers, symptoms, and treatments for headache pain caused by different types of headaches such as migraines, sinus, cluster, tension, or stress.
Migraine HeadacheMigraine headache is a type of headache associated with a sensitivity to light, smells, or sounds, eye pain, severe pounding on one side of the head, and sometimes nausea and vomiting. The exact cause of migraine headaches is not known. Triggers for migraine headaches include certain foods, stress, hormonal changes, strong stimuli (loud noises), and oversleeping. Treatment guidelines for migraines include medicine, pain management, diet changes, avoiding foods that trigger migraines, staying hydrated, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly. Prevention of migraine triggers include getting regular exercise, drinking water daily, reducing stress, and avoiding trigger foods.
Migraine HeadachesIs it a headache or a migraine? Learn what a migraine is, causes, symptoms, treatments, and at-home remedies.
Migraine or Tension Headache? Symptoms, Triggers, TreatmentsWhat does a migraine headache feel like compared to a tension headache? Learn to spot migraine symptoms early, how to identify your triggers, and get more information on migraine headache medications and treatments. Learn to tell migraine from other types of headaches.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scan)MRI (or magnetic resonance imaging) scan is a radiology technique which uses magnetism, radio waves, and a computer to produce images of body structures. MRI scanning is painless and does not involve X-ray radiation. Patients with heart pacemakers, metal implants, or metal chips or clips in or around the eyes cannot be scanned with MRI because of the effect of the magnet.
Muscle Cramps (Charley Horse) and Muscle SpasmsWhat are the differences between muscle spasms and cramps? Learn about the causes of muscle spasms and cramps (charley horse) in the calf, leg, and more.
Muscle SpasmsMuscle spasms are involuntary muscle contractions that come on suddenly and are usually quite painful. Dehydration, doing strenuous exercise in a hot environment, prolonged muscle use, and certain diseases of the nervous system may cause muscle spasms. Symptoms and signs of a muscle spasm include an acute onset of pain and a possible bulge seen or felt beneath the skin where the muscle is located. Gently stretching the muscle usually resolves a muscle spasm.
Pain QuizIs pain all in the brain? Take the Pain Quiz to learn everything you've ever wanted to know about the unpleasant sensation we call pain.
15 Ways to Reduce PainChronic pain can be a symptom of many conditions, including arthritis, headaches, and others. Comprehensive chronic pain management therapy may include physical therapy, lifestyle strategies such as exercise, diet changes, meditation, journaling, medications, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco use. Make helpful changes to manage your chronic condition.
What Causes Headaches at the Back of the Head?Headaches in the back of the head can have a number of different causes; it might only be due to a minor injury or it can be a secondary symptom of other problems in the body. The type and location of the pain can play a crucial role in diagnosing the cause of headaches.
What Does a CT Head Scan Show?A computerized axial tomography (CAT) or computerized tomography (CT) scan uses a series of X-rays taken at different angles to produce a detailed image of the head and brain. A CT scan is done to study the patient’s skull, brain, jaw, sinuses, and facial bones, and to investigate tumors, head injuries, aneurysms, and other conditions.
X-RaysX-rays are a powerful form of electromagnetic radiation that can pass through solid objects. In medicine, X-rays are used to obtain an image of a part of the body. X-rays are necessary to diagnose many illnesses, for example, tumors, arthritis, dental problems, digestive or heart problems, and bone fractures. The side effects, dangers, and risks of having X-rays while pregnant or breastfeeding are provided.