When a condition of pain exists in the occipital nerves—those that travel up the back of neck to the back of the head and into the scalp—it’s often classified as occipital neuralgia. The pain from occipital neuralgia can appear suddenly and be very severe, and it’s thought to be due to a pinching of the affected nerves—from arthritis, a problem with the muscles around the spinal column, diabetes, gout, mellitus or vertebral disc disease—where they emerge from the spinal cord.

Pain in the scalp at the rear of the head is the most common sign of occipital neuralgia, and the pain may present as either aching or burning. It can be felt on either one or both sides of the head and be accompanied by light sensitivity and a restriction of head movement.

Diagnosis usually can be attained by a physical examination combined with an MRI. Additionally, if occipital neuralgia is strongly suspected certain nerve blocking medications can be injected into the affected area to determine if they cease or ease the pain and therefore confirm the diagnosis.

Treatment is dependent on the severity of symptoms and the origin of the pain. Application of heat coupled with massage and pain-relieving medications may be all that is needed. In more severe cases stronger medications may be prescribed or surgery may be necessary to alleviate the compression on the occipital nerve.