Headaches that cause pain in the base of the neck are the tension types. The area in between the upper cervical spine and the base of the skull is the sub-occipital region. This region contains several nerve fibers, small muscles and joints which produce pain. Since the pain can point to a life-threatening condition, see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.
Common causes of headache at the base of the neck
Even though not fully understood, a tension headache might be linked to significant muscle tension and contraction in the neck, upper shoulders, scalp and sub-occipital region. The tension is due to extended stress and poor posture which leads to the dull ache-like pain and inflammation. A tension headache can generate mild to moderate levels of diffused pain that spreads in a band-like pattern that includes the back of the head and base of the neck.
Tension headaches can also result from changes to the brain chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Aside from stress and poor posture, jaw clenching, weak muscles, depression and dehydration can contribute to the occurrence of headaches at the base of the neck.
Dysfunction of the upper neck
The upper cervical vertebrae in the neck are at risk for injury and dysfunction. Take note that these bones serve as a base for the head and needed to move in various directions. Once there is damage to the tendons, muscles, ligaments, nerves or joints of the upper neck, there is local pain but a cervicogenic headache can also develop.
A cervicogenic headache involves occipital or sub-occipital pain that starts from injury to the nerves of the neck, often the small joints of the neck.
The pain of this type of headache is local and dull which occurs close at the base of the head but it can be sharp with abrupt neck movements, spreading up to the upper part of the head. Remember that upper neck dysfunction can be triggered by rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, dislocation, nerve root irritation and protruding intervertebral discs. Trauma such as whiplash during a vehicular accident as well as stress, advancing age and migraines increase the risk for cervicogenic headaches and neck pain.
The disease process can trigger headaches at the base of the neck. Aside from arthritis, uncommon diseases and conditions are potential causes such as spinal meningitis, brain abscesses, Piaget’s disease, brain aneurysms and brain tumors. Remember that both viral and bacterial meningitis often start with a stiff neck and headache but can also include nausea, fever and light sensitivity.