The Link Between Occipital Neuralgia and Migraines


Occipital neuralgia and migraines are two different conditions. However, they are sometimes confused because of an overlap in symptoms. Let’s take a closer look at both conditions and why the confusion exists. Then we will consider a natural therapy that may be able to help either problem if the underlying issue appears in the upper cervical spine.

What Is Occipital Neuralgia?

The occipital lobe’s location is in the back of the head. Headaches that occur only in this region are relatively rare. The nerves that feed this part of the head originate in the upper cervical spine. There are three of them: the great, lesser, and third occipital nerves. 

While researchers have yet to point the finger at a direct cause of occipital neuralgia, the problem clearly has to do with the irritation of one or more of these nerves. This may occur due to injury, inflammation, compression, or some other type of nerve problem.

Occipital neuralgia is known for causing pain in the back of the head. When the greater occipital nerve is the one that is affected, the pain is more likely to occur on one side rather than both. The condition is usually episodic. That means the attacks last no more than a few minutes. It can be a very intense and piercing pain. Even when an attack is not present, there may be tenderness in the back of the head. 

Triggers often involve touching the back of the head. Therefore, everything from brushing your hair to putting on a hat to laying down on a pillow may result in an attack. 

What Are Migraines? 

Migraine is a neurological condition that is known for causing headaches (even though this symptom is only present 90% of the time). Migraine headaches are usually moderate to severe in nature. They can be one-sided or affect both sides. The pain presents as a pulsing for throbbing sensation in most cases. Also, migraine headaches may grow worse with exertion.

There are numerous other symptoms of migraines that help to identify these headaches as being neurological in nature. For example, most patients experience everything from sensory sensitivities and nausea to neck pain and visual symptoms. 

Migraine triggers can be many and varied. Sensory overload, weather changes, stress, and many other factors may lead to the onset of a migraine. Episodes of this condition usually last for several hours, but when all of the phases are considered a migraine may last several days in total.

Occipital Neuralgia and Migraine Symptoms Overlap 

Since the two conditions are so different, why is there so much confusion? Let’s consider some of the symptoms overlap between occipital neuralgia and migraines

  • Occipital pain – Migraine headaches are commonly felt in the occipital region. 
  • Unilateral pain – Both conditions can present with pain on just one side.
  • Severe pain – Both conditions may result in severe headaches. 
  • Neck pain – Since the occipital nerves originate in the neck, the pain may radiate in this direction. About 75% of migraines feature neck pain either before or during the attack. Cervicogenic headaches (headaches that begin in the nerves of the neck) can also be confused for either condition. 

Clearly, there are many reasons that occipital neuralgia and migraines are confused. The primary difference, however, is the length of time of an attack. If your attacks last for minutes, occipital neuralgia is more likely. If your episodes last for hours, that sounds more like migraines. On the other hand, it may be that either condition is being confused for cervicogenic headaches. 

When the Neck Is the Source of Headaches or Migraines 

Occipital neuralgia and migraines often begin after some sort of head or neck injury. This makes sense because these injury types can create the right conditions for various forms of headache. For example, consider how upper cervical misalignments can impact the following:

  • Brainstem function – The C1, atlas, surrounds and protects the brainstem. However, even a slight misalignment may apply undue pressure to the brainstem and lead to inhibited function. 
  • Blood flow – The cervical spine facilitates blood flow to the brain. Upper cervical misalignments can affect the amount of oxygen reaching the brain and may result in varying side effects depending on the parts of the brain impacted. 
  • Neck nerves – Misalignments can put pressure on a nerve or lead to inflammation that causes nerve irritation. 

It is no wonder that neck pain and headaches seem to go hand in hand. But even when neck pain is not a symptom, a slight misalignment may still be in play, so it makes sense to take a closer look at the upper cervical spine. A specific form of chiropractic may help in this regard. 

Upper Cervical Specific Chiropractic and Migraines 

Occipital neuralgia, migraines, and other headache types can have their genesis in the neck. Upper cervical specific chiropractic focuses on the C1 and C2 vertebrae. By delivering precise and gentle corrections, it may be able to relieve the conditions that lead up to headaches. For some patients, this has meant fewer and less severe headaches. For others, the issues have resolved entirely.

If you are looking for safe and natural migraine relief, contact an upper cervical chiropractic in your area today. You may find that that problem has been in your neck all along. So before you give up hope for finding natural help for your headaches, use the search feature on this site to locate an upper cervical practitioner in your area.

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The content and materials provided in this web site are for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to supplement or comprise a medical diagnosis or other professional opinion, or to be used in lieu of a consultation with a physician or competent health care professional for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. All content and materials including research papers, case studies and testimonials summarizing patients' responses to care are intended for educational purposes only and do not imply a guarantee of benefit. Individual results may vary, depending upon several factors including age of the patient, severity of the condition, severity of the spinal injury, and duration of time the condition has been present.