People can experience a range of headaches that can cause different types of pain, including a throbbing pain at the back of the head. This pain can result from a headache or other medical conditions.

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According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), headaches are among the most common forms of pain.

Sometimes, headaches can be a symptom of an underlying health condition. One of the things doctors look for when trying to understand the cause of a headache is the type and location of the pain.

This article will look at what can cause a throbbing headache at the back of the head, also called occipital headaches. It will also look at the causes, treatments, and when to speak with a doctor.

Damage or pressure on the nerves of the upper part of the spinal column, neck, scalp, and back of the head can result in occipital neuralgia.

According to the NINDS, it feels like a piercing or throbbing pain in the upper neck, behind the ears, and the back of the head.

The pain usually starts in the back of the neck then spreads. Some people will also experience pain on the scalp, forehead, or behind the eyes.

They might also be sensitive to light or sound.

Treatment

The condition will usually get better on its own. To manage the symptoms, a person can try:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • using a heating pad on the head
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen

Sometimes, doctors might recommend muscle relaxants. If the pain is severe, they might prescribe antidepressants or steroid injections.

Learn more about occipital neuralgia.

Most migraine headaches can cause severe, throbbing pain on one side of the face and head.

However, according to a 2020 article, those with vestibular migraine headaches are more likely to experience pain in the back of the head.

Migraine headaches are a neurological condition, and some people have a genetic predisposition to them. In other people, migraine headaches develop as a result of certain triggers or situations.

Triggers include stress, hormonal changes, flashing lights, too much or too little sleep, and sudden changes in weather.

Before the migraine headache starts, the person might experience warning signs, such as food cravings, mood changes, uncontrollable yawning, fluid retention, or increased urination.

Some people will then see flashing or bright lights, which doctors call an “aura,” before the migraine headache starts.

Symptoms of migraine include:

  • a headache that gets worse when the person moves
  • nausea or vomiting
  • weakness
  • sensitivity to light
  • sensitivity to sound

Treatment

There are many effective preventive and treatment medications for migraine headaches.

Doctors also advise people to try to avoid their triggers.

Other ways to ease the symptoms include:

  • resting in a quiet, darkened room with their eyes closed
  • placing an ice pack or cool cloth on their forehead
  • drinking plenty of water

Learn more about treatment options for migraine headaches.

Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

A 2022 article states that those who drink caffeine habitually can develop a physical and emotional dependence on it. If a person suddenly stops drinking caffeine, they may experience symptoms of withdrawal.

The severity of the symptoms vary based on the individual, and the most common symptom is a headache.

Treatment

The symptoms will ease if a person begins consuming caffeine again. However, those who wish to become less dependent on caffeine should gradually decrease the amount of caffeine they consume.

To treat a headache, a person can take OTC pain relievers. Remaining hydrated and sleeping may also be beneficial.

Learn more about caffeine withdrawal headaches.

According to one article, a headache due to head trauma can result from a concussion, a skull fracture, or bruising of the brain.

Pain can affect any location on the head, including the back of the head.

A person should seek help if they notice the following symptoms:

  • a persistent headache
  • repeated vomiting and nausea
  • convulsions
  • enlarged pupils
  • slurred speech
  • weakness in the arms or legs
  • lack of coordination
  • confusion
  • restlessness and agitation

A doctor will order brain imaging scans to rule out a major issue that could require surgery.

Treatment

Treatment can include pain medication, rest, and rehabilitation.

Learn more about treating head injuries.

An IH refers to bleeding inside the brain or the skull.

These headaches are very serious, and they can occur due to a stroke or a bleeding aneurysm in the brain.

According to a 2020 article, this causes severe pain, often all over the head or in the back of the head.

The bleeding may also produce neurological symptoms, such as weakness or seizures.

Treatment

An IH is a medical emergency that requires intensive care and might need surgical treatment.

Learn more about IH.

Intracranial hypotension is quite rare. It happens when the spinal fluid leaks out of a hole in the meninges, which cover spinal cord, causing problems with pressure inside the brain.

According to the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD), 5 out of every 100,000 people experience spontaneous intracranial hypotension. Usually, this problem occurs due to a brain tumor, trauma, or a side effect of a medical procedure.

The symptoms might come on gradually or suddenly.

The most common symptom is a headache that gets worse when the person is upright. It can be a throbbing pain in the back of the head.

Other symptoms include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • pain or stiffness in the neck pain
  • pain between shoulder blades or in the arms
  • dizziness and balance problems
  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • muffled hearing or hearing a ringing sound
  • cognitive impairment, or changes in the ability to think clearly

Treatment

NORD indicate that in some cases, symptoms may resolve without treatment. However, they advise that a person rests and remains hydrated.

Doctors use a surgical procedure to mend the spinal cord and stop the fluid leaking.

Learn more about intracranial pressure.

A throbbing headache at the back of the head might be a sign of a brain tumor.

The pain happens when the tumor presses against the brain’s blood vessels and nerves or causes swelling and fluid buildup.

According to the American Brain Tumor Association, people who have a brain tumor sometimes have pain that:

  • is worse first thing in the morning
  • is accompanied by vomiting
  • gets worse when coughing, exercising, or moving
  • does not get better when the person takes OTC pain medication, such as aspirin or ibuprofen

Other symptoms of a brain tumor include:

  • seizures, including muscle spasms or twitches, a loss of consciousness, loss of control of bodily functions, or changes in vision, sensation, or smell
  • personality changes
  • feeling extremely tired
  • sleeping problems
  • memory problems
  • problems carrying out everyday activities

Treatment

Treatment is different for everybody. It will usually include a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

Learn about different types of brain tumor and their treatment.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, a primary headache can occur during sexual activity (pre-orgasmic) or during orgasm (orgasmic).

An orgasmic or pre-orgasmic headache is usually a sudden and explosive headache that turns into a severe throbbing sensation, but it can be a dull pain as well.

The pain can occur on both sides of the head or at the back of the head.

If a person experiences a headache with sexual activity, they should see a doctor who can rule out any other potential causes, such as cardiovascular disease, a brain aneurysm, or a brain tumor.

Treatment

These headaches typically last between 1 minute to 24 hours.

However, if they recur frequently or last for longer, a person can take triptans and propranolol to help ease the pain.

Learn more about orgasm headaches.

A tension headache can occur anywhere on the head, including the back of the head.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, tension headaches are very common. They usually cause a dull ache, rather than throbbing pain, but they can cause a dull, pressing or thudding pain that feels like a tight band around the head.

Tension headaches can occur due to fatigue, stress, hunger, or without an obvious cause.

Treatment

A person can take OTC medications to relieve the pain from a tension headache.

Learn more about tension, or stress headaches.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes that people should contact a doctor if:

  • the headache keeps returning
  • the headache worsens
  • pain relievers do not help
  • a person experiences a throbbing pain located at the front or the side of the head
  • a person feels nauseous, vomits, and experiences sensitivity to light

People should seek emergency medical attention if they have:

  • a head injury
  • a headache that develops suddenly and the pain is severe
  • a headache that occurs alongside vision loss, drowsiness, eye redness, and a high temperature
  • weakness in the arms or legs
  • double vision or blurred vision

A person should also seek emergency medical help if the headache occurs alongside other symptoms, such as a fever, confusion, stiff neck, vision loss, numbness, and vomiting.

Lots of different things can cause headaches. They can interfere with a person’s quality of life, but most of them are nothing to worry about.

Sometimes, a throbbing headache in the back of the head might be a sign of an underlying health condition, such as migraine, IH, or occipital neuralgia.

Anyone who thinks that an underlying health condition is causing their headaches should speak with a doctor.