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Better Sleep with Occipital Neuralgia: How to Cope

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Introduction to Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is a rare condition that causes severe headaches and migraines and can disrupt your life in many ways. If you have occipital neuralgia, you may experience pain at the base of your skull, behind your eyes, or laterally across the eyes and lower forehead.

Other common symptoms of occipital neuralgia include light sensitivity, blurry vision, vertigo and dizziness, dental pain, and tension in the neck and shoulder muscles. The discomfort and disruption of occipital neuralgia pain can even affect the quality of your sleep.

Sleep is incredibly important, especially for individuals with chronic illness. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you grumpy and less productive, it can impact your health, make chronic pain worse, and even reduce your body’s ability to heal and repair itself.

The Best Sleeping Position for Occipital Neuralgia

The best sleeping position for individuals suffering from occipital neuralgia is lying on their back. Choosing a pillow that provides ample neck support and aligning the body and head at the same angle is important. Avoid bending the neck upwards while sleeping, as it can worsen the symptoms of occipital neuralgia. If sleeping on your back is not comfortable, sleeping on your side is an alternative option. However, ensuring that your neck receives proper support to prevent nerve compression or inflammation is crucial.

Sleep is key to breaking the pain cycle for people with occipital neuralgia. Sleep gives your body and brain a chance to rest and is key for recovery. Unfortunately, many people with occipital neuralgia struggle to fall asleep at night due to their pain.

Symptoms like dental pain and scalp tenderness can make it feel impossible to find a comfortable position to sleep. Vertigo and neck pain can result in nausea and vomiting, making lying down or attempting to relax uncomfortable. Sharp pain behind the eyes or at the back of the skull can be disruptive, and cause plenty of restless nights.

Thankfully, some lifestyle strategies and medical treatments can reduce occipital neuralgia pain and help you sleep at night. In this comprehensive guide, we’re sharing 10 strategies to help you sleep with occipital neuralgia. Sleep is extremely important, especially for individuals with chronic illness, so if your ON pain has been disrupting your nights, try some of these tips for reducing pain and sleeping comfortably.

This guide offers effective strategies for reducing occipital neuralgia pain and coping with sleeplessness. If your occipital neuralgia pain is persistent and disruptive, consult your doctor for more specific information.

Sleeping Comfortably in Bed with Occipital Neuralgia

1. Get the Right Occipital Neuralgia Pillow

Since many people with ON suffer from neck pain, having the right pillow to provide proper support is crucial. People with occipital neuralgia should choose a pillow that helps provide both head and neck support to prevent movement during the night. Your neck should be stable and straight, but also cushioned to prevent tension as you sleep. Pillows for neck pain are available on the market, featuring unique designs for people with different sleep styles.

If you have ON, it is recommended that you choose a pillow with an indentation for your head or neck. It is important to test out different options to find the right pillow for your needs and anatomy.

When traveling on a plane, train, or car, it is recommended that you use a horseshoe-shaped pillow to keep your neck aligned and to prevent your head from dropping to one side while you sleep. Ensure the pillow isn’t too large behind the head, as your head may be pushed forward in this case.

2. Find the Best Way to Sleep with Occipital Neuralgia

The position you sleep in can directly impact the quality of your sleep, especially if you have ON. Sleeping in the wrong position can make the problem even worse. Many people with ON experience worse headaches, increased neck pain, and stiffness after sleeping in a bad position. To prevent this, people with occipital neuralgia should sleep with their necks straight and fully supported. As mentioned above, some pillows can help achieve this, but it is also important to be mindful of how you position yourself before falling asleep.

Sleeping in the wrong position can make the problem even worse.

The best position for people with ON to sleep in is on their back with a pillow that provides neck support and prevents side-to-side movement. If you cannot sleep on your back, the next best position is on your side. Side sleepers should be careful to choose a pillow that cradles their head and neck without lifting the head above shoulder level.

3. Apply Topical Pain Relief Creams

To help reduce muscle soreness, some people with occipital neuralgia use topical pain relief creams and ointments. Popular options include heating and cooling gels, arnica creams, CBD and hemp products, and prescription-strength pain relief solutions. Topical pain relief products are great for applying just before bed and can be worn all night to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. To increase the therapeutic benefits of topical pain relief, consider adding cream or gel to your self-massage routine.

4. Switch Off Screens

Many people spend considerable time staring at screens, from phones to computers, TVs, tablets, or e-readers. However, using screens for prolonged periods can lead to eye strain and adversely impact sleep quality, especially for those with occipital neuralgia. The light emitted by screens, particularly from computer screens, can cause sensitivity and trigger headaches, leading to difficulty in falling asleep.

5. Get Enough Sleep

Occipital neuralgia can be draining, and getting enough sleep is vital to allow your body to recover. Being productive during the day depends on your health and wellness, which, in turn, depends on your body's ability to heal itself. While many adults run on as little as 4 hours of sleep a night, this is inadequate for most healthy individuals, especially those with occipital neuralgia.

Treating Occipital Neuralgia Before Bed

The time before you go to bed is crucial for people with occipital neuralgia since trying to sleep with a severe headache can be next to impossible. Making healthy lifestyle choices and taking specific steps to treat your occipital neuralgia pain can help to improve sleep and reduce headaches throughout the day. Before bedtime, try using some of these strategies to prepare yourself for sleep:

1. Work with a pain doctor to treat your occipital neuralgia.

Before you can begin treating your occipital neuralgia, it is important to talk to a pain doctor about which treatments will work best for you. Occipital neuralgia is a relatively rare condition, but a pain doctor can help you determine the most accurate diagnosis. Conditions that cause similar symptoms include chronic migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, and several others.

In some cases, symptoms may be so severe that your doctor recommends an occipital nerve block. In this minimally invasive procedure, the area around the occipital nerve is injected with anti-inflammatory steroids to reduce the transmission of pain signals to the brain. More than 40% of patients who receive this procedure report zero pain once the effects kick in, with results lasting up to 504 days.

Not all cases of severe occipital neuralgia can be treated with an occipital nerve block, so it is important to talk to your pain doctor about your options. In addition to helping you find the right diagnosis, your doctor can give you strategies for coping with discomfort, create a treatment plan, or approve various strategies you would like to try at home.

2. Understand caffeine and occipital neuralgia effects

If you enjoy a big cup of coffee in the morning, an energy drink at lunch, or cola with your dinner, your caffeine intake could be affecting your occipital neuralgia. Drinking caffeinated drinks every day can make your brain depend on the boost, causing big problems when it doesn’t get its daily dose of caffeine. When you drink caffeine, the blood vessels around the brain narrow. When you forget to drink your caffeine, those same blood vessels widen, increasing blood flow and putting pressure on your nerves.

People with occipital neuralgia should avoid caffeine.

Because of this, people with occipital neuralgia should avoid caffeine. A dependency can trigger headaches, result in acute inflammation, and even affect the quality of your sleep. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can make you feel restless or anxious before bed. Anxiety and restlessness are bad for someone who already struggles to sleep comfortably due to occipital neuralgia, so the simplest solution is to cut out caffeine.

If you have occipital neuralgia but don’t want to give up caffeine, limit your intake to the mornings and be sure to drink the same amount at the same time each day. Setting a limit and creating a routine can help you to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches while ensuring you are free of caffeine by the time you go to sleep.

3. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet

Diet can play an important role in your overall health and well-being. This is especially true if you have a chronic condition like occipital neuralgia. Eating foods that reduce inflammation can help reduce pressure on your nerves, blood vessel swelling, and chronic pain resulting from inflammatory conditions like occipital neuralgia. Some important considerations to make if you want to eat an anti-inflammatory diet include:

  • Staying hydrated (drinking plenty of water and avoiding caffeinated and sugary drinks)
  • Eating fresh produce (leafy greens, whole fruits)
  • Avoiding foods with added sugar (candy, processed foods)
  • Eating foods rich in magnesium (almonds, pumpkin seeds, edamame, soy milk, tofu, avocado, salmon, broccoli)

More About Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Learn more about anti-inflammatory foods. An anti-inflammatory diet can help with chronic conditions brought on or worsened by inflammation, such as occipital neuralgia.

4. Practice gentle occipital neuralgia stretches

A common symptom of occipital neuralgia is tight neck muscles. Tight neck muscles are not only uncomfortable but can actually make your headaches and migraines worse. Doing gentle exercises and stretching can help add flexibility to your neck, reduce tension and pain, and even treat symptoms of ON. Neck pain yoga is easy to do and can be done before you go to bed when you wake up and throughout the day. Whenever you feel a twinge of neck pain, stop and take a moment to relax and stretch.

5. Prioritize relaxation before you hit the bed

After a long stressful day, you might have the urge to jump straight in bed. Unfortunately, lying in bed isn't always relaxing for people with occipital neuralgia and related neck pain. To help yourself prepare for a good night’s sleep and release the tension you have collected during the day, try creating a before-bed relaxation ritual. Dedicating just 15 minutes to calm your body and mind can make it much easier to relax in bed, and reduce symptoms related to ON. Some techniques you can try include:

  • Self-massage
  • Light yoga
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Taking a hot shower
  • Stretching

Practicing relaxation techniques before bed isn’t just good for your physical health, it can help soothe your mind, too. Creating a self-soothing ritual before bed can help eliminate racing thoughts, calm stress from the day, and put yourself in the right state of mind to get quality rest.

6. Use heat therapy

Heat therapy can be effective for relieving pain caused by occipital neuralgia. Heat helps to reduce muscle tension and increase blood flow to the affected area, which can help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. You can use a hot water bottle, a warm compress, or take a warm bath before bedtime to relax your muscles and ease pain.

7. Try sleep aids

Various over-the-counter sleep aids can help people with occipital neuralgia get a better night’s rest. Sleep aids can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, even if you have ON pain. Talk to your doctor about which sleep aids may be appropriate for you, and be sure to follow the instructions carefully.

8. Use supportive pillows

Using the right pillow can make a big difference in how comfortable you sleep with occipital neuralgia. Try using a pillow that offers support for your neck and head. A good pillow can help to reduce tension and pressure on your nerves, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. Many types of pillows on the market can help with ON pain, such as cervical or memory foam.

9. Create a comfortable sleep environment

Creating a comfortable sleep environment can also help you sleep better with occipital neuralgia. Keep your bedroom cool and dark to promote a restful night’s sleep. Use blackout curtains, earplugs, or a white noise machine to block out any noise or light disrupting your sleep. You may also want to invest in a comfortable mattress and bedding that supports your body and helps you feel relaxed.

10. Seek professional help

If your occipital neuralgia pain is persistent and affecting your ability to sleep, it is important to seek professional help. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms and possible treatments that may work for you. Your doctor may recommend medication, physical therapy, or other treatments to help relieve your ON pain and improve your sleep quality.

Final Thoughts

occipital neuralgia can be challenging to manage, especially when getting a good night's sleep. However, several techniques can help alleviate symptoms and promote restful sleep. These include finding the right pillow with adequate neck support, sleeping properly, using topical pain relief creams, reducing screen time before bed, and getting enough sleep.

It's important to consult with a pain doctor to find the best treatment options for your specific needs. By incorporating these techniques into your daily routine, you can improve your quality of life and manage the symptoms of occipital neuralgia. Remember, it's important to prioritize self-care and seek professional medical help if you're struggling with the condition.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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