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Pain at the Base of the Skull

Persistent pain at the base of skull is suggesting slipped disc or arthritis of the neck. Inappropriate posture and damage to the occipital nerve passing through the neck area can also trigger pain at the skull base.
Nicks J
Last Updated: May 19, 2018
Did You Know?
Injury, frequent strain due to overuse of neck muscles and poor posture while sitting or lying down are some of the most common factors responsible for causing pain at the base of the skull.
Pain at the base of the skull is often associated with damage to the nerve that is passing through that area. The discomfort may even spread to the shoulder area and affect normal movement of the neck and shoulders. The pain causes headache and makes the scalp very sensitive. Even combing the area, especially in the rear part of the skull, can cause unbearable pain.
Symptoms
Radiating pain may make the neck muscles stiff, and the discomfort might travel all the way down to the arms. No wonder, weakness in the arms has also been reported by patients suffering from pain at the base of the skull. If the pain is severe, then it is obvious that the neck won't be able to bear the weight of the head and in such circumstances, the patient walks with the neck bent on either the left or right side.
Causes
Neck Problems
Neck problems such as slipped disc can bring pain at the base of the skull. Neck pain resulting from injury or arthritis of the cervical spine can also cause moderate to severe discomfort at the base of the skull. Some of these neck conditions that can cause this type of discomfort at base of skull are given below:
Slipped Disc
The cervical spine that forms the neck and starts from the base of the skull is made up of 7 bones that are arranged one above the other. As we all know, the spine covers the spinal cord (a bundle of nerves originating from the brain). In between each pair of bones of the cervical spine, lies a circular shaped tough elastic tissue, commonly referred to as a disc. These 'discs' do an important job of preventing friction between bones, as well as absorb the impact while jumping or running. A person is diagnosed with slipped disc condition when the disc displaces from its original position. This may compress a portion of the nerve that is passing from near this disc. The compressed part of the nerve triggers pain that may travel up to the base of the skull.
Neck Arthritis
This condition causes inflammation of the joints located in the neck area. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system invades the joint tissues. The joint is regarded as a point of contact between two different bones. The terminal ends of the bones have tough elastic tissue, known as the cartilage that do not allow the bones to rub against each other. In this condition, there is swelling of the lining of the joints, which causes considerable loss of cartilage, eventually leading to bone loss and deformed joints. This deformity in joints in the neck area can cause neck pain at the base of the skull.
Trauma
A trauma such as an accident or an injury that affects the neck area, can lead to muscle strain. The soft tissues located in the neck such as ligaments and tendons may also be injured, causing a sprain. This pain is likely to travel at the base of the skull, and cause further discomfort.
Repeated Strain
It is observed that the neck muscles are connected near the base of the skull. These neck muscles provide support to the head which weighs around 1.5-2 kg. Frequent movement of the head followed by inadequate rest is likely to put undue pressure on these neck muscles, resulting from excessive strain. This over use of neck muscles can cause pain at the base of the skull.
Occipital Neuralgia
Occipital neuralgia causes sharp pain at the base of the skull that moves up and affects the rear of the skull. The spinal cord is nothing but a bunch of nerves (brain signal carriers) that originate from the base of the skull and run all the way down to the lower back area. Nerves also branch out from spinal cord and travel to different parts of the body. The occipital nerve is the term used to describe two nerves of the spinal cord that branch out from the neck area of the spinal cord and travel through the back of head, and finally end their journey into the scalp. These nerve provide sensation to the scalp area. When these occipital nerves are subjected to undue pressure due to neck problems like slipped disc or are damaged and inflamed during an accident, the condition is referred to as occipital neuralgia. This condition brings occipital headache, and the most common symptom of this type of headache is pain at the base of the skull. Damage to the occipital nerve leads to frequent episodes of headache that usually cause pain at the back of the scalp. The compression of the nerve associated with occipital neuralgia causes pain similar to the pricking of pins and needles.
Skull Base Tumors
When a tumor forms at the base of the skull, discomfort around the area is bound to be the likely outcome. The tumor that develops, rarely turns malignant, and can occur anywhere in the middle, anterior and posterior part of the skull base. Although in most cases, they are benign tumors, surgical removal is very important to ease the pain.
Occipital Bone Problems
Osteoporosis of the occipital bone can also trigger neck pain that may occur anywhere from the back of the scalp to the base of the skull. The occipital bone is situated in the rear area of the skull. This curved bone extends from the rear area of the scalp all the way down to the base of the skull. Osteoporosis is a condition that is typically marked by weakening of bones. The bones become so weak that the vibrations arising from coughing can cause fracture, ultimately resulting in pain. People who have crossed the age of 50, usually suffer from osteoporosis.
Poor Neck Posture
Sitting or standing in a posture for prolonged periods of time that puts excessive weight on the neck can result in this type of pain. Leaning the head in the forward direction by 2-3 inches means the weight on the neck raises by approximately 30 pounds. So reading a book, watching television, sitting in front of the computer or talking on a phone with forward head position can be strenuous to the muscles connected to the occipital bone, eventually giving rise to neck pain at the base of the skull.
Wrong Sleeping Position
Sleeping in an inappropriate way can also put excessive strain on the neck muscles and cause neck pain that is more prominent at the base of the skull. Wrong sleeping positions often leads to stiff neck and is accompanied by discomfort at the base of skull. Using memory foam pillows and preferably sleeping on the back will ensure comfort and reduce strain on the neck. If you are sleeping sideways, make sure you have a supportive pillow that keeps the neck comfortably elevated. People with sleeping disorders are also at increased risk of musculoskeletal pain. No wonder, those having a hard time falling sleep tend to suffer from chronic neck problems that manifest in the form of pain at the base of the skull.
Sedentary Lifestyle
Spending endless hours on the computer in an awkward position such as with a hunched back can also put a lot of stress on the neck and back muscles. This can also lead to neck pain at the base of the skull. For the better part of the day, we are in the office, leaving us little time for any exercise. This kind of sedentary lifestyle is a primary contributory factor in the development of chronic musculoskeletal pain, which causes neck pain in the long run.
Treatment
Corticosteroids
Rheumatoid arthritis is generally treated with pain medications such as corticosteroids, in order to manage the inflammation of the joints. Anti-rheumatic medicines and immunosuppressants may also be prescribed to prevent worsening of arthritis. An ice massage or administering injections at the site of pain may also help to reduce occipital headache.
Muscle Relaxants
Neck muscle pain might also be treated with muscle relaxing agents like diazepam. Often, a muscle injury causes repetitive contraction of muscles and in such cases muscle relaxants are often prescribed to calm the muscles. It is one of the safest and most importantly an effective pain reliever, and so provides quick relief from muscular pain. Use of anti-inflammatory medicines that not only reduce the pain but also the swelling is another option to improve neck discomfort.
Neck Traction
Neck traction has been used for years to manage pain associated with a pressed nerve or a stiff neck. The traction puts weight on the neck, which in turn stretches the muscles and the ligaments. The stretching force exerted by the traction relaxes the muscles as well as releases the pressure on the compressed nerve.
Chiropractic Treatment
Chiropractic care for neck pain is based on the principle that improperly aligned spinal column (a stack of hollow bones running from the base of the skull to the pelvis) is the main reason behind neck or back pain. In this method, the chiropractor (doctor) with his hands puts frequent repetitive pressure on any part of the spinal column in an attempt to realign it. This method is called spinal manipulation that allows the joints to slightly move from their normal position. This manual movement of joints and muscles that is commonly accompanied by clicking sound helps to relieve back and neck pain.
Exercise
The key to strengthen your muscles is to be physically active. So, ditch your sedentary lifestyle and religiously follow an exercise routine to a point that the body demand it out of you. Certain neck exercise too can be useful to improve the strength and reduce the stiffness of muscles. Exercises like moving the head slowly in a circular fashion can improve mobility and prepare the neck muscles for normal activity.
Surgery
Occipital neuralgia is usually treated with medicine to decrease the swelling of nerve. If there is no improvement, a surgery may be performed to reduce the pressure on the nerve by cutting the part of the disc that has protruded.
Disclaimer:
The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.