Headaches come in many flavors. A pinched nerve in the neck can cause pain in the head — and usually, it’s a certain kind of pain.
“A pinched nerve high in the cervical spine (e.g., C2) can cause sharp, lancinating [piercing, stabbing] pain that travels to the occiput [back of head] that can result in occipital neuralgia,” says John D. Lipani, MD, FACS, neurosurgeon-in-chief for and founding director of Princeton Neurological Surgery in NJ.
Neuralgia means nerve pain. A nerve can become pinched when the spongy, shock-absorbing spinal disc protrudes out from between the vertebral bones, putting pressure on a nerve.
“At first, the pain may start as a dull ache and gradually intensify over days, weeks or even months to full blown occipital neuralgia,” says Dr. Lipani. “Symptoms may vary with position and activity.”
The pain may also be sudden, seemingly from nowhere. At that moment, pressure is put on the nerve, instantly causing head pain. And it can bite hard, often making a person stop in their tracks whatever they’re doing.
People may wonder if they have a brain tumor, simply due to the severity of the pain.
Usually, headaches from a brain tumor are not characterized by sudden stabs of pain. There’s also usually other concerning symptoms by the time a brain tumor causes headaches, such as nausea, vision problems, unsteady gait, unexplained weight loss or fatigue, etc.
Dr. Lipani continues, “A degenerative disc in the neck can also cause occipital headaches, also referred to as cervical headaches.”
Another name for these is cervicogenic headaches.
“This is a consequence of arthritis that causes chronic inflammation within the intervertebral discs, vertebral bodies and/or facet joints.”
An MRI will show if there is any pathology involving the cervical spine or brain.
Dr. Lipani is a board certified, fellowship-trained neurosurgeon. His specialties include minimally invasive spine surgery and non-invasive brain and spine radiosurgery. He’s the founding director of the JD Lipani Radiosurgery Institute™ for non-invasive neurosurgery.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.