Pain in the back of the head at the base of the skull: 10 possible causes

Experiencing pain in the back of your head, especially at the base of your skull, can be discomforting and concerning. Occasional headaches can be a common occurrence and can often be attributed to stress, fatigue or even tension. Persistent pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull can be indicative of an underlying health issue. 

Potential causes of pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull\

If you are experiencing pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull, several conditions could be responsible for this discomfort, including:

  • Tension headaches — Tension headaches are a common cause of pain in the back of the head, affecting as many as 2 in 3 adults in the U.S. These headaches are often the result from stress, poor posture, or muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. This pain is typically dull and achy. It may radiate from the neck to the base of the skull. 
  • Migraines — Migraines are debilitating headaches affecting more than 10% of the world’s population. Migraines can cause severe throbbing pain, often on one side of the head. Some migraines, known as occipital migraines, can cause pain specifically in the back of your head near the base of your skull. These headaches can be accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound and nausea. 
  • Arthritis of the neck — Arthritis in the neck is also known as cervical spondylosis. This condition can cause pain at the base of your skull. It is degeneration of the cervical spine joints. This degeneration can lead to stiffness, pain and a limited range of motion in the neck. Over time, arthritis can cause bone spurs. These bony growths can irritate nearby nerves and tissue. 
  • Cluster headachesCluster headaches are headaches that occur in cyclical patterns or clusters. Pain from these headaches is usually felt around one eye; however, it can radiate to the back of the head. Cluster headaches are often severe and can last from around 15 minutes to several hours. These headaches may occur multiple times a day during a cluster period. 
  • Hypertension — Hypertension is high blood pressure, affecting nearly half of the adult population. When it is uncontrolled, high blood pressure can cause headaches, particularly in the back of the head. Hypertension can place a strain on blood vessels in the brain. This strain can cause pain and discomfort. If you have hypertension, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure levels regularly.
  • TMJ disordersTemporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders affect the jaw and muscles that assist in jaw movement. TMJ disorders can cause referred pain and can lead to headaches and pain at the base of your skull. Grinding your teeth, clenching your jaw, or jaw misalignment can also contribute to TMJ-related pain. 
  • Posture-related strain — Poor posture, especially during long use of electronic devices, can contribute to neck strain. This extended strain can lead to pain at the base of your skull. “Text neck” is a condition that is caused by looking down at smartphones or tablets for extended periods of time and can cause significant tension in your neck muscles. 
  • Cervicogenic headachesCervicogenic headaches originate from the cervical spine or neck region. Dysfunction or irritation of the neck joints, muscles, or even nerves can cause pain at the base of your skull. Activities that can strain the neck, such as prolonged computer use or poor sleeping positions, can trigger cervicogenic headaches. 
  • Infections — Certain infections, like meningitis or occipital bone infections, can cause pain at the base of your skull. Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and the spinal cord. This inflammation can cause severe headaches and neck pain. Medical attention should be sought immediately if you suspect you may have meningitis. Occipital bone infections are rare, but can cause localized pain and tenderness in the back of your head. 
  • Occipital neuralgia — Occipital neuralgia is a rare condition that is characterized by inflammation or irritation of the occipital nerves. These nerves run from the spinal cord to the scalp. This inflammation can cause sharp, shooting pain in the back of the head. Occipital neuralgia may be the result of a trauma, pinched nerves or another underlying medical condition. 

How can physical therapy help alleviate pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull?

Physical therapy can be an essential part of managing or alleviating pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull. A licensed physical therapist can provide targeted treatments and exercises to help address the underlying causes of your pain. These treatments can include:

  • Manual therapy Hands-on physical therapy techniques like soft tissue manipulation, joint mobilization and myofascial release are often used to help relieve tension. These techniques can also help improve blood flow and reduce muscle tightness in the neck and upper back. Manual therapy can help to alleviate pain caused by muscle tension, cervicogenic headaches and neck stiffness.
  • Therapeutic exercises — Your physical therapist may recommend specific exercises that are intended to strengthen your neck and upper back muscles, as well as improve your flexibility and posture. 
  • Cervical traction — Cervical traction involves the gentle stretching of your neck to help relieve pressure on your spine. This can help reduce headache symptoms that are associated with nerve compression or muscle tension. 

Lattimore PT can address the pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull

At Lattimore PT, we pride ourselves on the expert care we offer our patients. Our licensed physical therapists understand the complexities of the head and neck and can help determine the underlying cause of the pain you’re experiencing in the back of your head at the base of your skull. Through our customized treatment plans, we aim to help alleviate your discomfort, improve your mobility and help enhance your overall quality of life. 

Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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