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    Occipital Neuralgia

    Occipital neuralgia is a condition in which the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord up through the scalp, called the occipital nerves, are inflamed or injured. You might feel pain in the back of your head or the base of your skull.

    People can confuse it with a migraine or other types of headache, because the symptoms can be similar. But treatments for those conditions are very different, so it’s important to see your doctor to get the right diagnosis.

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

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


    Occipital neuralgia happens when there’s pressure or irritation to your occipital nerves, maybe because of an injury, tight muscles that entrap the nerves, or inflammation. Many times, doctors can’t find a cause for it.

    Some medical conditions are linked to it, including:

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

    How It's Diagnosed

    Your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and about any injuries you’ve had. She'll do a physical exam, too. She’ll press firmly around the back of your head to see if she can reproduce your pain.

    She may also give you a shot to numb the nerve, called a nerve block, to see if it gives you relief. If it works, occipital neuralgia is likely the cause of the pain. You might also have blood tests or an MRI scan if your doctor thinks your case isn’t typical. 

    You have to get the right diagnosis to get the right treatment. For example, if you have occipital neuralgia and you get a prescription for migraine medication, you may not get relief.

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