Pain in Base of Skull: What Headache at Base of Skull Means

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Pain in Base of Skull: What Headache at Base of Skull Means
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Pain or headaches at the base of your skull are often the result of tight muscles in the back of your neck due to tension, stress, or fatigue. Pain in back of head at the base of skull can also be caused by a herniated cervical disc or injury to your upper neck. Sometimes, the headaches that start at the base of the skull can be tension headaches, cluster headaches, or cervicogenic headaches.

Pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull can cause your head to hurt with dull, nagging persistent pains. If you have a trapped nerve in your cervical spine, you may experience sharp jabbing pains that radiate to your temples or behind your eye. Headaches at the back of your neck can also cause pain that travels down your spine. Neck pain at the base of your skull may also result in shoulder pain, back pain, or tingling in your arms.

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In most cases, the neck pain and headaches at the back of your head go away when you get proper rest or apply home remedies. For example, applying a heat or cold pack, getting a neck or shoulder massage, or using essential oils can help to relieve a stiff neck that causes headaches.

In this article, you will find out what it means if you have a headache in the back of your head and neck. You will also find helpful ways to alleviate the pressure and tension at the base of your skull. In some cases, if the pain doesn’t go away, you should see a doctor.

The Anatomy of Your Upper Spine

The upper part of your spine that joins to the base of your skull is called the cervical spine. Dr. Robert E. Windsor, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, says that the cervical spine consists of 7 vertebrae. These are referred to as C1 to C7 vertebrae. The first vertebra (C1) is called the atlas and upon which the base of the skull rests.1

The cervical spinal vertebrae are also responsible for most of the movement of your neck and head. Dr. Windsor says that the cervical spine is the most mobile part of your spine.

Intervertebral discs are located between each vertebra and these act as shock absorbers. These are round, jelly-like discs that prevent inflammation and pain in the back of your neck.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that you also have nerves and muscles in the back of your neck. The muscles join the top of your neck to the base of your skull. The trapezius muscles also attach your neck to your scapula (shoulder blade). There is also a system of nerves in the back of your neck, some of which form part of the spinal cord.2

Headaches at the base of your skull can occur if any of the discs between the vertebrae rupture or you get pinched nerves in your neck.

The Connection Between Neck Pain and Headaches in Back of Head

Finding the exact cause why the back of your head hurts can be a challenge. Sore neck and headaches can be caused by issues with muscles, ligaments, nerves, or vertebrae in your spine.

Dr. William Blahd on WebMD reports that spinal discs can bulge or rupture and press on a nerve in your neck. This can cause shooting pains in your head or back of your neck. Depending on the severity of the disc rupture, you may also experience weakness or numbness in your shoulder or down one of your arms.3

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The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association reports that muscle tenderness in the back of your neck can also cause migraine-like headaches. This can result in pounding pain in the back of your head or top of your skull. It could also be that dysfunction with vertebrae in your neck is connected with a constant headache and neck pain.4

Pain in Back of Head at the Base of Skull – Common Symptoms

Mild to severe headache pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull isn’t the only symptom you may suffer from. Upper neck and head pain can also be associated with other distressing symptoms.

According to Dr. David M. Biondi who specializes in headache management, some other symptoms of pain at the base of the skull can include:4

Headaches or Pain at Base of Skull – Common Causes

What can be the reasons for pain in the back of the head and at the base of your skull and neck? Let’s look at what can be causing your sore neck and headache.

Tension headache

Tension headaches are one of the most common reasons for headaches at the base of your skull. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes tension headaches. Recent research suggests that dysfunction of the central nervous system causes a feeling of tight muscles at the back of the head.

According to Dr. Manish K. Singh on eMedicineHealth, tension headaches cause aching pain or a feeling of pressure in the back of the head. However, the headache and neck pain isn’t as severe as suffering from migraine pain. Very often the sore neck and headache come on gradually and are more common in the afternoon and evenings.5

Many people associate tension headaches and tight neck pain with stress, not getting enough sleep, fatigue, hunger, or bad posture.6

Other symptoms of a tension headache can include:

  • Pain at the base of the skull that radiates to the neck and shoulders
  • Fatigue and general feelings of tiredness
  • Irritability

You can usually get quick pain relief from tension headaches and neck pain by massaging the base of your skull with essential oils to get rid of headaches.

Upper neck injury or strain

Damage to the nerves, joints, or muscles in the back of your neck can cause the back of your head to hurt.

Dr. William H. Blahd on WebMD says that neck injury or strain could be from something as simple as bad posture or tripping to something as serious as being in a car accident. Straining the muscles or nerves in your neck can cause inflammation or muscle spasms, and it may feel like a stiffness, or severe pain. The neck pain can spread to the shoulders, upper back, or arms, or it may cause a headache.7

A more serious neck injury that can cause painful headaches could be a fracture of your spinal vertebrae or ruptured disk.

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Along with pain at the base of skull and neck, a strained neck can also cause any of the following symptoms:7

  • Stiff neck that affects your upper arm, upper back, or shoulder blade
  • Shooting pains down one or both arms
  • Feeling of “kinks” in the back of your neck
  • Pain when you move your neck or head
  • Constant severe headaches or loss of bowel or bladder control (requires medical attention)

Stiff neck

The back of your head could hurt because of stiff muscles or nerves that give you a painful stiff neck. The causes of a stiff neck may or may not be something to worry about.

As I already mentioned, damage to the muscles, nerves, or vertebrae in your neck can cause neck stiffness and pain.

According to Dr. Melissa Conrad Stöppler on MedicineNet problems with the arteries, thyroid gland, swollen lymph nodes, or other organs in your neck can cause headache pressure pain and neck pain.8

Neurologist Dr. Cordia Wan warns that a stiff neck along with a severe headache could be symptoms of meningitis. This viral infection that causes inflammation in the brain usually also causes a rash, fever, tingling in the head, or fatigue. If you notice any symptoms of meningitis, you should seek emergency medical care.9

To help relieve a stiff neck and head pain caused by damaged neck muscles, please read my article on how to get rid of a stiff neck in under a minute.

Pinched cervical nerve and herniated disc in your upper neck

One reason for shooting neck pain at the base of your skull is a pinched nerve in your upper spine. A herniated disc between the vertebrae in your neck can cause extreme pain in the base of your skull and back of your neck if the herniated disc presses on a nerve root.

A pinched nerve in your cervical spine is called cervical radiculopathy. Researchers from the University of Maryland report that spinal nerves in the neck travel along the shoulders and down your arms. If a disc bulges or ruptures it can push on the root of the nerve, causing it to become pinched. The result can be severe shooting neck pains and intense cervical headaches.10

The European Spine Journal also mentions that discs can rupture or bulge in your cervical spine, and the most common symptom is shooting pains in your neck and arms, as well as cervicogenic headaches at the base of your skull. The reason for the intense neck pain is because the disc puts pressure on the nerve root.

Other painful symptoms of a pinched cervical nerve can include any of the following:10, 11

  • Inability to raise your arms above your head without pain
  • Tingling and numbness in one or both shoulders and arm pain
  • Recurring headaches that only affect one side of the head
  • Pain that radiates out from the back of your head and neck
  • Throbbing aches at the back of your head
  • Muscle spasms in the back of your neck
  • Tenderness in the base of your skull

Very often, exercises can help to release a pinched nerve in your upper back.

Arthritis headaches

Joint degeneration of your cervical spine caused by arthritis or wear and tear can cause varying degrees of pain in the back of your head at the base of your skull.

According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are a common reasons for neck pain and headaches. Arthritis causes inflammation of the cervical vertebrae that results in headache pain and neck stiffness.12

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If arthritis is a “pain in the neck” for you, you should try to avoid foods that cause inflammation. Also, many studies have shown that turmeric has anti-arthritis properties and is a useful natural remedy to reduce joint pain.

Occipital neuralgia

A headache in the back of your neck may be caused by occipital neuralgia. Your occipital nerves originate in the upper neck and travel up each side of your head. If these nerves get pinched or trapped, you will have neck pain and headaches on the side of your head.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine say that occipital neuralgia can result in electric-like shooting pains from the base of your skull to your scalp. Depending on how the occipital nerve has been damaged, you may also experience some of the following:13

  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Numbness on part of your affected scalp
  • Tenderness in the back of your neck at the base of your skull
  • Pain that shoots from the back of your head to behind your eye

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause intense pain in the temples or headaches behind the left eye or right eye. Although cluster headaches don’t originate in the neck, headache pain caused by a cluster headache can spread to the base of the skull.14

Other Reasons for Having a Headache in the Back of Head and Neck

There can be some other reasons why pain in the base of your skull causes headaches.

Bad pillow or mattress. If you frequently wake up in the morning with a headache at the back of your neck, then it could be caused by a bad pillow or mattress. The journal Advances in Physiotherapy reported that choosing the right pillow can reduce the frequency of neck pain and headaches.15

Herpes simplex virus. Back of the neck pain and headaches can be the first sign of the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). The journal Archives of Neurology reports that HSV-2 and neck pain are often connected. Recurring headaches and a stiff neck along with a fever usually appear before other symptoms of genital herpes.16

Pain in Base of Skull and Headaches: The Best Home Remedies for Headache Pain Relief

There are many excellent home remedies to treat headache pain at the base of your neck. Many times, applying natural remedies at the first sign of head pain can stop the headache becoming more severe.

Warm or cold compress

A warm compress is a great way to relieve muscle tension in the back of your upper neck that is causing headaches. Heat from a warm compress also helps to alleviate irritation in sore joints.

According to Dr. Melinda Ratini on WebMD, a warm pad can help to reduce headache and neck pain. Heat helps to reduce tension in muscles and reduce the length of time your head hurts. For some types of headache, a cold compress works better and has a cooling effect on inflamed nerves.17

How to use a heat compress to relieve pain at the base of the skull:

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  1. Fill a hot water bottle with hot (not boiling) water and wrap in a towel.
  2. Place the warm compress at the base of your skull or on the back of your head.
  3. Leave for 15 minutes to help relieve neck pain and headaches in the back of your head.
  4. Use 2 or 3 times a day to ease pressure at the base of your skull.

You can also try using a cold pack for pain at the base of your neck that is caused by a pinched nerve. Use a bag of frozen vegetables in place of the hot water bottle.

Tennis ball

A simple tennis ball is an effective way to release nerve pain and headaches that start at the base of the skull.

How to use a tennis ball to get rid of a pain in the neck:

  1. Put 2 tennis balls in a clean sock and secure shut.
  2. Lie on your back and put the tennis ball sock at the base of your skull.
  3. Let your head rest on the tennis balls.
  4. Gently move your head back and forth and from side to side to help get rid of a sore neck and headache.
  5. Keep massaging the back of your neck and head for a few minutes.
  6. Repeat 3 or 4 times a day to help treat neck pain at the base of your skull.

Neck massage for headache pain relief

One way to get rid of knots in the neck at the base of your skull is to give your neck a gentle massage. Massaging the back of your head, neck, and shoulders is a great way to ease the pain of a pinched cervical nerve.

According to Dr. William H. Blahd on WebMD, massage helps to release tension in your neck and shoulders to ease upper neck and lower head pain. Massaging also helps to increase blood flow to the painful area to get rid of pain quickly.17

How to massage the back of your neck with essential oils:

  1. Combine 5 drops of eucalyptus oil, 5 drops lavender oil, and 3 drops peppermint oil with 1 oz. of olive oil or sweet almond oil. Mix thoroughly.
  2. Put some oil on your fingertips and massage the base of your skull and base of your neck for a few minutes to release neck tension headaches.
  3. Use the essential oils for headaches 2 times a day to relieve pain at the base of your neck.

Stretching exercises

If a stiff neck and tense neck muscles are making the back of your head hurt, you should try regular stretching exercises for your neck.

According to doctors from the Cleveland Clinic, neck stretches help to strengthen the ligaments and muscles in your neck. This can help to prevent constant headaches and neck pain.19

Neck stretches to relieve pain at the base of the skull:

  1. Stand straight.
  2. Drop your head to the left should while continuing to look ahead. Hold for 10 seconds and then swap sides. Repeat twice.
  3. Next, lower your head forward so your chin touches your chest. Hold for 10 seconds. Then, tilt your head back to look up at the ceiling and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat twice.
  4. Look over your left shoulder as far as you can without causing any pain. Hold for 10 seconds. Then, turn your head as far as you can to the right and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3 times.
  5. Now, sit down with your back straight.
  6. Push your chin out in front of you as far as you can and hold for 10 seconds. Then, move your head all the way back as far as possible and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

Physical therapist or chiropractor

In cases of chronic headaches at the back of your neck and other types of neck pain, you may need help from a professional physical therapist or chiropractor.

The Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy reports that spinal manipulation or physical therapy can help to release pressure on nerve roots. This can provide long-term relief from neck tension headaches and upper back pain. Your physical therapist can also provide a number of individually-tailored exercises to help to strengthen your upper back to prevent neck pain and headaches.20

When to See a Doctor

More often than not, home remedies and physical therapy is all you need to treat pain at the base of your skull. However, if you find that your head still hurts and you can’t get any pain relief, you may need to see a doctor.

You should never ignore chronic headaches that cause pounding head pain or neck pain that interferes with your daily activities. Doctors from Harvard Medical School advise that you should see a doctor for neck pain and headaches in the back of your head in the following circumstances:

  • Home remedies don’t provide any relief from constant headaches and/or neck pain.
  • Headaches at the base of your neck are the result of a serious head or neck injury.
  • You have numbness in one or both arms.
  • Sneezing, coughing, or moving your head makes the back of your head hurt badly.
  • You have a stiff neck, fever, pounding headache, and a rash that may be symptomatic of meningitis.
  • Frequent headaches are accompanied by slurred speech, vision problems, or seizures.
  • You develop a painful red eye.

Read these related articles:

Medical References

  1. Medscape. Cervical spine anatomy.
  2. Britannica. Neck.
  3. WebMD. Cervical disc herniation.
  4. JAOA. 2005 April;105(4):16S-22S.
  5. eMedicineHealth. Tension
  6. WebMD. Tension headaches.
  7. WebMD. Neck problems and injuries.
  8. MedicineNet. Stiff neck.
  9. Medscape. Meningitis.
  10. UMMS. Cervical radiculopathy.
  11. Eur Spine J. 2007 Jul; 16(7): 953–959.
  12. CMAJ. 2001 Apr 17; 164(8): 1182–1187.
  13. JohnsHopkins. Occipital neuralgia.
  14. MedicineNet. Cluster headache symptoms, causes.
  15. Adv Physioth. 2006 Apr 19;8(3): 122-127.
  16. Arch Neurol2008;65(5):596-600
  17. WebMD. Treating mild headache pain.
  18. WebMD. Neck pain – home treatment.
  19. ClevelandClinic. Do you have a stiff neck?
  20. J Man Manip Ther. 2011 Aug; 19(3): 135–142.
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