Neck Pain and Headaches: What Causes a Headache at the Back of the Head?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

When you have a headache at the back of your head, there could be a variety of causes. It could be due to a migraine, poor posture, or physical stress. In most cases, the pain may be mild and resolve after a bit of rest. However, severe pain could be a symptom of a specific medical issue.

What causes a headache at the back of the head?

You can experience headaches at the back of the head for different reasons, including due to medical issues from other body parts. In those cases, the headache may serve as a warning sign for that condition.

Headaches are classified based on the pain type, where the headache happens, and symptoms associated with the pain. Understanding the characteristics of headaches and identifying the type can make the diagnostic process easier, and health care professionals should be able to help you find the best treatment option.

Let’s get into it.

Tension headache

When you have a headache at the back of your head, the most common culprit is likely a tension headache. Tension headaches often cause a sensation of tight pain around the neck. You might feel your neck or scalp tightening up.

A tension headache could occur briefly for 30 minutes or last for more than five days. The pain could be mild and or occasionally spike up to severe pain. Tension headaches often occur as a result of stress, lack of sleep, or not drinking enough water.

A woman at her work desk with a tension headache

Low-pressure headache

Low-pressure headaches happen spontaneously due to low pressure from the cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This fluid helps cushion the brain and spinal cord.

If spinal fluid leaks, it often causes a headache at the back of the head. This can result if the dura — the membrane that covers the spinal cord — has a tear. If you have a tear in the dura, you may experience more pain when you sit or stand up followed by relief after lying flat for about half an hour. If you suspect you have this condition, be sure to visit your health care provider.

Occipital neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is a rare headache at the back of the head or neck. The pain is often severe and is caused by inflammation of the nerves that run through your spinal cord to the scalp. People who experience migraines may be more prone to occipital neuralgia. This throbbing pain may be due to arthritis, injury, or muscle tension.

When you have occipital neuralgia, you may experience eye pain, light sensitivity, or pain when you move your neck. Likewise, you may feel like you are experiencing an electric shock around your neck or the back of your head.

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Medication overuse headache

Medication overuse headaches often occur as a result of drug abuse. Taking too much medication can lead to headaches in the lower back of the head. While taking medication for pain relief is very common, a medication overuse headache could be more likely if you take it more than twice a week.

Medication overuse headaches are also considered rebound headaches. They are persistent headaches that occur when someone stops taking medication for pain relief. This can also lead to anxiety, restlessness, physical weakness, or pain upon waking up.

Can poor posture cause pain in the back of the neck along with a headache?

Yes, poor posture can cause pain in the back of the neck. Likewise, it can also cause headaches.

People often sit or stand without considering their posture, especially when using mobile devices or sitting at the computer.

Unfortunately, poor posture can wreak havoc on your muscles.

Sitting or standing for long periods of time as part of your daily activities — like your job — can change your posture, potentially wearing out the muscles around your neck, shoulders, waist, and legs. When the muscles around your neck and shoulders get weakened, tension can build up and lead to a headache at the back of your head and neck. Headaches like this are often characterized by a dull, pounding pain at the base of your skull.

What does a headache on the right side of the back of your head mean?

The most common reason for a headache on the right side of the back of your head is a tension headache. These are headaches that tighten your neck or scalp, often caused by stress or lack of sleep. At times, you may feel like the nerves around your neck are constricting, causing a headache at the back of your head’s right side.

Another category of headache that can cause pain at the back of the head’s right side is a cluster headache.

Cluster headaches are rare and occur at the back of the head.

They are often characterized by severe, intense pain around the eye that extends to other areas, including the neck and shoulders.

Often, cluster headaches come with facial sweating, restlessness, swollen eyes, or a runny nose. Cluster headaches are more common in men than women. There are no established factors behind cluster headaches, but smoking, drinking alcohol, and having a family history of cluster headaches may increase your chances of having them.

Possible reasons for a headache on the left side of the back of your head

Localized headaches can occur due to a variety of conditions. Here are two kinds of headaches on the left back of the head.

Migraine

People with one-sided headaches are often experiencing migraines. Migraines are a common type of headache among women. They can be recurring and begin in childhood. Your chances of having migraines increase as you age.

Migraines are often characterized by a sensitivity to light or sound, dizziness, and/or nausea. For people who are prone to migraines, physical stress can make the pain from a migraine headache worse. There is often no established cause for migraines, but experts believe that triggers can include intense emotions, environmental factors, certain medications, and a change in diet.

A woman with a neck pain and a headache at the back of the head

Cervicogenic headache

Cervicogenic headaches are considered secondary headaches because they result from other health conditions, including bone, neck, or tissue problems. The pain from a cervicogenic headache comes from the neck at the back of the head and spreads to the forehead. Pain from cervicogenic headaches can be moderate to severe.

Cervicogenic headaches can cause blurry vision, sensitivity to sound, neck stiffness, and shoulder pain. You may feel like your head is carrying weight.

How to prevent headaches at the back of your head

The best way to prevent headaches at the back of the head is to know what triggers headaches for you. Headache triggers can vary from person to person. When you are fully aware of what causes your headache, you can more easily avoid those triggers and hopefully prevent or reduce headache pain. If you already have any of the headaches listed above, there are different ways to treat them.

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If your headaches are caused by poor posture, improving it can help. This includes standing with good posture or using an ergonomic chair with good spinal support for work. For quick relief through medication, see your doctor for guidance.

You can treat occipital neuralgia by combining heat/warm therapy, massage, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and physical therapy. However, checking in with a doctor for medical treatment in mild and severe cases is always advisable.

Most times, seeking medical help is the best way to treat migraines. Your doctor can help you recognize what triggers your migraine and prescribe the right medications for you.

Summary

Headaches are a common medical condition. They might occur due to stress or underlying health conditions and can alter your quality of life and daily routine.

While it may be possible to treat mild headaches at home, it’s always best to seek medical help whenever you experience a persistent, recurring, or severe headache. If there’s an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed, your health care provider can help you find a treatment plan that works for you.

November 23, 2022