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Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is a neurological condition in which the occipital nerves -- the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord at the base of the neck up through the scalp -- are inflamed or injured. Occipital neuralgia can be confused with a migraine, or other types of headache, because the symptoms can be similar. But occipital neuralgia is a distinct disorder that requires an accurate diagnosis to be treated properly.

Symptoms of Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia can cause very intense pain that feels like a sharp, jabbing, electric shock in the back of the head and neck. Other symptoms of occipital neuralgia may include:

  • Aching, burning, and throbbing pain that typically starts at the base of the head and radiates to the scalp
  • Pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Pain behind the eye
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Tender scalp
  • Pain when moving the neck


Causes of Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is the result of compression or irritation of the occipital nerves due to injury, entrapment of the nerves, or inflammation. Many times, no cause is found.

There are many medical conditions that are associated with occipital neuralgia, including:

  • Trauma to the back of the head
  • Neck tension and/or tight neck muscles
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Tumors in the neck
  • Cervical disc disease
  • Infection
  • Gout
  • Diabetes
  • Blood vessel inflammation


Diagnosing Occipital Neuralgia

If you think you may have occipital neuralgia, make an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor will ask questions about your medical history and any injuries you may have had, and perform a physical exam. He or she should press firmly around the back of your head where the occipital nerve resides to see if he can reproduce your pain.  Your doctor may also give you an anesthetic nerve block to see if it relieves the pain. If it works, occipital neuralgia is likely the cause of the pain. If your doctor feels your case is not typical, he or she may order blood tests or an MRI scan. 

For treatment to work, it is very important that you receive an accurate diagnosis. For example, if you have occipital neuralgia and are prescribed migraine medication, you may not get relief.

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