The occipital nerves are located at the top of the spinal cord and travel through the top of the head. When this group of nerves is damaged or inflamed, people can feel intense pain from what seems like a headache or migraine. But unlike migraines or headaches, occipital neuralgia is a neurologic condition. Occipital neuralgia is a rare but extremely painful condition that may interfere with daily tasks like brushing and washing hair or lying down.
Occipital neuralgia occurs when the occipital nerve is pinched. There are numerous reasons why this may happen. A previous injury to the head or neck could have put pressure on the nerve, especially if it caused the muscles to stiffen. Another condition could also cause occipital neuralgia; an example is when bone spurs from osteoarthritis or damage from diabetic neuropathy cause pressure on the occipital nerves. Migraines may also interfere with the occipital nerve the condition caused inflammation around the nerve. Occipital neuralgia very rarely occurs as an isolated condition (with no other conditions present), but if no other causes are found, additional diagnostic testing may need to be performed.
The occipital nerves do not extend all the way to the face, so symptoms can be limited to the neck, back, and sides of the head. Patients may feel a sudden sharp pain that shoots or radiates from the neck to the head and is sensitive to the touch. Some patients may develop sensitivity to light as well. Pain can be felt on both sides of the head, although it is possible to only experience pain on one side. Some patients may feel pain behind the eyes, but never from the forehead around the eyes.
At the TriState Pain Institute, a number of treatment options are available for patients with occipital neuralgia to help them get the back to doing the day-to-day activities they were able to do before their head and neck pain began. Our physicians can prescribe medication to not only control pain, but reduce the inflammation around the nerve to keep the nerve from sending pain signals in the first place. For more long term results, patients can have a series of occipital nerve blocks. Occipital nerve blocks are a form of injection therapy that may provide pain relief for months at a time. The injection goes just under the hairline at the base of the skull and puts soothing anti-inflammatory medication directly into the area surrounding the nerve. Radiofrequency ablation is another option for patients and been proven effective at reducing neck pain. The procedure uses radio waves to heat the nerve so it can no longer send pain signals to the brain.