Pain in the back of the head and neck can have many causes, but the result is the same: stimulation of the pain neurons in the head and neck leading to the perception of pain as these signals are transmitted to the brain. The quality of pain can also vary depending on the cause. You may have constant or intermittent pain that can be anywhere in your head or neck. The sensation may be sharp and stabbing or dull and throbbing. You may be able to work through the pain or it may completely debilitate you.
Causes of Pain in Back of Head and Neck
There are many different causes of pain in the back of the head and neck. Often, a pain that starts in the neck will radiate into the back of the head; at other times, the reverse may happen. Some of the leading causes of pain include:
1. Tension Headaches
A tension headache is caused by muscles tightening in the head or neck. The tension headache can be caused by multiple factors including anything that produces tense muscles in the neck. Some of these factors include lack of sleep and exhaustion, grinding your teeth, poor posture and anxiety or stress. This type of headache usually begins in the neck or back of the head and produces a dull, throbbing pain.
2. Vascular Headaches
Typically experienced as a dull, throbbing pain on one side of the head, a vascular headache can be triggered by stress and anxiety or lack of sleep. The sufferer may experience nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to movement, sound and light.
A migraine is a type of vascular headache that recurs. The migraine is more common in women than in men and there seems to be some familial pattern with migraines. Almost 40% of people with migraines may experience pain in the back of the head or neck. A migraine can be caused by problems with the neck that can often be treated to reduce the frequency and severity of the pain. The symptoms of a migraine will be very similar to those of a vascular headache.
4. Cervicogenic Headaches
A cervicogenic headache is one that arises from disorders of the neck such as occurs with stress, poor posture, whiplash or other injuries, and actual abnormal structure in the cervical spine. Often, this pain will radiate into the upper back, shoulders, back of the head, and other parts of the head.
5. Sinus Headaches
Sinus headaches originate in the air-filled sinuses within the skull. When the sphenoid sinuses become inflamed or infected, pain in the back of the head can be the result. Typically the pain with a sinus headache gets worse when you lie down or bend forward.
6. Occipital Neuralgia
Occipital neuralgia is pain that is caused when the nerves at the base of the skull (called the occipital nerves) are damaged, irritated, or inflamed. Damage to these nerves can result in pain in the back of the head. Steroids, nerve blocks, and massage may help this type of head and neck pain.
7. Ice-Cream Headache
Most people have experienced the pain of the "ice-cream" headache. In most cases, these headaches are felt in the face and temples. However, in a small number of people, this headache may also occur in the back of the head.
8. Neck Tongue Syndrome
The neck tongue syndrome is so named because injury to the neck causes a disturbance in the sense of taste in the tongue. This syndrome is caused by irritation of the 2nd cervical nerve when a person's neck is rotated. Although it is not common, this syndrome can cause pain in the neck and back of the head.
9. Accessory Nerve Palsy
Accessory nerve palsy results from damage to the accessory nerve. When this happens, you can develop severe pain in the neck and shoulder of the affected side that can radiate into the back of the head. You may also notice that the shoulder on the affected side tends to droop down. If you have had recent surgery on your neck when these symptoms develop, you should suspect accessory nerve palsy.
10. Parkinson's Disease
Over 1/3 of people with Parkinson's disease also complain about pain in the back of the head and neck. The cause for these symptoms is not well-understood.
11. Strain or Sprain
Any sprain or strain to the muscles of the neck can cause severe pain in the neck that can radiate into the back of the head. A common cause of this type of injury is whiplash such as occurs in a motor vehicle accident or many sports injuries.
12. Poor Posture
Strain or sprain injury to the neck can also be a result of poor posture. If you are not aware of your posture as you sit at your desk, walk around, or lift objects, you may be at high risk for injury to the muscles in the neck that support your upper spine and head. As these muscles become weak, they are likely to begin to cause pain in the back of the neck and into the head.
As with other joints in the body, the joints in the neck between the vertebrae are subject to arthritis due to the repetitive motion of the neck. This arthritis can result in pain in the neck particularly associated with movement. This arthritis can also result in bone spurs.
14. Bone Spurs
Bone spurs are very common in the neck. These bony growths are usually caused excessive motion of the neck that causes the bones to rub together. The problem with bone spurs is that they can put pressure on surrounding muscles and nerves causing muscle spasms and pinched nerves. These injuries will often cause severe pain in the back of the neck with radiation of pain into the back of the head.
One of the diseases that can cause persistent pain in the back of the neck and head is cancer or other benign tumor. Tumors can be in the soft tissue of the neck or in the bony structures of the spine. As a tumor grows, pain in the back of the neck and head can be the result.
Other diseases and disorders can cause pain in the back of the neck and head. If you have chronic pain in the back of your neck and head, be sure to visit your healthcare provider for a specific diagnosis and plan of care.
Relief for Pain in Back of Head and Neck
Treatment for pain in the back of the head and neck will depend on what is actually causing the pain. There are several remedies to try at home and a few things you should avoid.
1. Rest and Sleep
In the case of muscle or ligament injury or strain, most healthcare providers recommend that you rest the affected area. Your provider may want you to wear a cervical collar for a few days to allow the supporting structures to rest. Any pain not relieved by rest should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
2. Heat and Ice
A treatment to try for pain in the back of the neck and head is the alternating use of heat and ice. For an acute injury, most practitioners recommend using cold to decrease swelling, but for chronic pain, alternating heat and ice may work. Use ice for 20 minutes then heat for 20 minutes.
3. OTC Pain Killers
Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen may be very effective for acute pain in the neck and head. Ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories may be very effective particularly if the pain is caused by swelling or inflammation.
Gentle stretching exercises and neck massage may help to relieve stiffness in the muscles that may be the cause of the pain. If you have severe or sudden pain in the head or neck, avoid exercise until you have been evaluated by your healthcare provider. After a full evaluation, your provider may want you to be seen by a professional physical therapist to start a safe program of exercise.
5. Things to Avoid
When you are suffering from pain in neck and back of the head, you should try to limit or avoid certain things listed below.
- As long as you are having any pain in your head or neck, try to avoid additional injury that may cause more damage.
- Avoid bright sunlight and other bright lights that can increase a headache.
- Large amounts of caffeine can increase a headache; however, cutting out all caffeine can also cause a headache.
- Chewing gum or soft candy can cause jaw and neck muscle stiffness.
- Salt and MSG are both known triggers of headaches - cut down on these flavorings if possible.
- Smoking and alcohol consumption can both lead to headaches in addition to the other health problems associated with those habits. If you can quit smoking and drinking, do so.