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.
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 to 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, or cervicogenic headaches.
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.
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.
Most migraines cause severe, throbbing headaches 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.
Some people will then see flashing or bright lights, which doctors call an “aura,” before the migraine headache starts.
Symptoms of migraines include:
- a headache that gets worse when the person moves
- nausea or vomiting
- sensitivity to light
- sensitivity to sound
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
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
- enlarged pupils
- slurred speech
- weakness in the arms or legs
- lack of coordination
- restlessness and agitation
A doctor will order brain imaging scans to rule out a major issue that could require surgery.
Treatment can include pain medication, rest, and rehabilitation.
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.
An IH is a medical emergency that requires intensive care and might need surgical treatment.
Intracranial hypotension is quite rare. It happens when the spinal fluid leaks out of a hole in the 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
A person can take OTC medications to relieve the pain from a tension headache.
People should seek medical help if they:
- have a new headache
- have regular headaches
- have a headache alongside other symptoms, such as a fever, confusion, stiff neck, vision loss, numbness, and vomiting
- have a headache that never goes away
According to the National Headache Foundation, people should also see a doctor if OTC painkillers are not enough to relieve the headache, or they take painkillers more than 2 days a week.
A person should seek emergency medical attention if:
- they experience the worst headache they have ever had
- they are having the worst migraine attack they have ever experienced
- they have a headache alongside vision loss, excessive vomiting, loss of consciousness
- they experience a headache for 72 hours with a pain-free period that lasts less than 4 hours
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 to a doctor.