When a nerve that passes through the neck is damaged, a headache at base of skull may manifest. The pain may radiate to the shoulder and alter the function of the shoulders and neck. The pain can make the muscles in the neck firm and inflexible resulting in stiff neck. It can radiate down to the arms, causing arm weakness. With severe pain, it will be difficult for the neck to bear the weight of your head and the neck may bend on either side. Finally, headache at base of skull may also make the scalp more irritable that even a simple brush stroke may cause intolerable pain.
There are many reasons why one may experience a headache at the base of the skull. It is important to determine the cause so that appropriate treatment may be given.
Causes of Headache at Base of Skull
Headaches that come from the base of the skull may be caused by:
1. Neck Problems
Neck injury or arthritis may be a probable cause of pain at the base of the skull:
- Slipped Disc. The bones that make up the neck or cervical spine are arranged one on top of the other and protect the spinal cord, from where spinal nerves emerge. A cylindrical elastic tissue known as disc is found in between these bones, which cushions the bones while jumping or running to prevent friction. Once the disc is displaced slipped disc occurs, which may compress the nerve passing through the discs. The compressed nerve sets off a burning sensation that radiates to the base of the skull.
- Neck Arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that may affect the joints in the neck. It involves inflammation of the elastic joint tissues called cartilage, which prevents the bones from rubbing with each other. The deterioration of the cartilage causes bone loss, joint deformity, and inflammation, which lead to headache at the base of the skull.
- Trauma. An injury from an accident around the neck area may affect soft tissues like ligaments and tendons and can cause sprain. The discomfort may lead to headache at the base of the skull.
2. Excessive Strain
The head, which weighs more or less 1.5-2 kg, is supported by the neck muscles near the base of the skull. Unnecessary frequent movement of the head without adequate rest may put undue stress to the neck muscles because of excessive strain, which may give rise to headache at the base of the skull.
3. Nerve Problem
From the spinal cord, the nerves branch out and spread to different body parts and organs. Neuralgia or nerve damage due to problems in the neck or accident can occur, resulting in occipital neuralgia, which manifests as headache at the base of the skull.
4. Base of Skull Tumors
A tumor, usually benign (not cancerous) can develop in the front, middle, and back part of the skull and can cause pain or headache in this area.
5. Bone Problems
Osteoporosis is a condition wherein the bones become weak, brittle, and prone to fracture. Occipital bone osteoporosis may trigger pain in the back of the scalp and may extend up to the base of the skull. It usually affects people past the age of 50.
6. Poor Posture
Leaning the head forward while standing or sitting subjects the neck muscles to an unnecessary heavy burden. Spending long hours with the head in an improper position like using the computer, reading books, or watching television can be tiring to the muscles of the neck, which will consequently result to neck pain at the base of the skull.
7. Sleeping Position
An improper sleeping position may undoubtedly strain the neck muscles and result to stiff neck. Sleeping on your back with the neck comfortably elevated will reduce strain on the neck muscles. People with sleep deprivation problems are inclined to suffer chronic neck pains at the base of the skull.
8. Sedentary Lifestyle
A lifestyle that involves long hours of sitting or not doing anything at all can set a heavy burden on the back and neck muscles. Slouching or drooping while on sitting position for countless hours can strain the neck and back muscles that may lead to headache at the base of the skull.
Remedies for Headache at Base of Skull
Here are some medical managements and home remedies used to relieve headaches:
- Corticosteroids. There is no known cure for arthritis so, generally, people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis are given pain medications like corticosteroids to deal with the inflammation on the joints and temporarily relieve the pain.
- Muscle relaxants. In a muscle injury, the muscles tend to contract more frequently than normal so a drug is administered to relax the muscles. The drug of choice is paracetamol (acetaminophen) because it is safe and effective in relieving pain.
- Neck Traction. A strap is placed underneath the jaw and at the back of the nape to support the weight that pulls and stretch the muscles and ligaments. This will eventually release the pressure on the compressed disc or pinched nerve.
- Chiropractic Treatment. Spinal manipulation is the method usually implemented by chiropractors wherein the misaligned spinal bones from the base of the skull down to the pelvic area are subjected to frequent repetitive pressure to bring back the spinal column to its normal alignment.
- Exercises. The best solution to musculoskeletal problems is to exercise the muscles in that affected area. Range of motion exercises for the neck such as circular motions can help improve its mobility and return to its normal activity.
- Surgery. In the case of occipital neuralgia, it is common for physicians to resort to surgery to reduce the pressure on the nerve when no improvement is achieved by drug therapy.
Preventions for Headache at Base of Skull
- Avoid Monosodium Glutamate. Food enhancers like MSG or Monosodium Glutamate are often used to bring out the best in foods and make them more delicious. However, it has side effects to some people who are sensitive to its chemical composition and may cause headaches. Avoiding its use can help prevent these symptoms.
- Avoid Nitrates and Amines. Phenylethylamine, an amine compound that can be found in chocolates, may trigger a headache by making the blood vessels constrict and dilate. It can also be found in other foods such as homemade yeast breads and lima beans. Another compound that has similar adverse effect is nitrates, which can be found mostly in processed foods like bacon, salami, and hotdogs.
- Take Fish Oil. It has been found that taking fish-oil capsules may reduce the severity and frequency of headaches. These preliminary findings by a small study at the University of Cincinnati have added to the mounting evidence of the benefits from omega-3 fatty acids in fish.
- Use Ginger. Thromboxane A2 is a substance that prohibits the discharge of substances that dilates the blood vessels. Ginger inhibits the release of thromboxane A2, thus helping to keep a well-balanced blood flow and in effect, preventing headaches.
- Improve Posture. People with posture problems may want to try a technique to correct their posture by aligning their eyes with their shoulders. They straighten up automatically.
- Reduce Caffeine Intake. Caffeine from soda or coffee can worsen headaches. Slowly reducing caffeine intake may provide relief by constricting the dilated blood vessels around the temples. Do not stop caffeine intake abruptly because it will result to headache.
- Take Magnesium. To reduce muscle spasms and tension try taking a supplement that contains at least 200 to 400 mg of active elemental magnesium. Since magnesium is more preventive than curative, the treatment works on conditions where the onset can be predicted such as premenstrual headaches.