Occipital neuralgia is a commonly missed headache diagnosis. The symptoms for headaches can be quite different. Occipital neuralgia can mimic migraine headaches but do not respond to standard migraine medications. Occipital neuralgia rarely occurs as a headache syndrome by itself. The majority of patients with occipital neuralgia have one or more other types of headache including: migraines, tension headache, rebound headache and cluster headaches. Occipital neuralgia is frequently misdiagnosed as migraine or cluster headaches. Patients with prominent face pain as part of their occipital neuralgia may be incorrectly diagnosed with tic delaroux (trigeminal neuralgia – a type of facial pain.)
Occipital neuralgia is caused by an irritation of the occipital nerve as is comes through the muscles in the back of the neck. The occipital nerve is formed from branches of the second and third cervical nerve roots. This nerve passes posteriorly up the back of the head, piercing through the muscles of the upper neck. The occipital nerve then curves over the back of the head to the frontal area, stopping at approximately the hair line. This nerve provides pain and sensory information over the back 2/3 of the head. When the nerve becomes irritated from various causes such as strained or tense neck muscles, whiplash injury, neck arthritis or even just sleeping wrong – getting a kink in your neck. These can all result in occipital neuralgia (also called occipital headache or occipital neuropathy).
The headache symptoms of occipital neuralgia include upper neck pain, pain at the base of the skull, which may be on one or both sides, and pain traveling up the back up the head as far forward as the forehead. Some patients experience pain behind the eyes or even facial pain. The pain is commonly made worse by laying on your back. The back of the head or scalp can be sore to touch. The head pain can be anywhere from a nagging aching pain to an excruciating migraine headache type of pain, which can be debilitating. The latter type of occipital neuralgia pain is frequently missed and instead treated as a migraine. Most migraine therapies do not work to relieve occipital neuralgia.
Diagnosis of occipital neuralgia is made by careful neurological examination of the patient. Most individuals have normal exams except for exquisite tenderness at the base of the skull, in the area of the occipital nerve. If pressing on this area reproduces the occipital head pain, the diagnosis is made. Treatments can include the use of anti-inflammatory agents such as aspirin, Tylenol, naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin.) Ice to the back of the neck and head can provide temporary relief. One of the most effective therapies, which can be curative for occipital neuralgia, is an occipital nerve block. This is a very safe procedure and consists of injecting a mixture of a local anesthetic with a long acting cortisone. This injection is put in the neck muscles just below the skull base, in the area where the occipital nerve pierces through the muscles. The needle is directed away from the spinal cord and is outside the skull so there is no chance of injury to the spinal cord or brain. The anesthetic works immediately and may cause some temporary scalp numbness. The cortisone is long acting – slow release so that it may take a week to be fully effective. Success rates of up to 80% have been reported. In patients with additional types of headaches, it is not uncommon to add an antidepressant to prevent migraines and other similar headaches. The antidepressants are the mainstay therapy in headache treatment and prevention and have nothing to do with their use for treatment of depression. If you think you have occipital neuralgia or have persistent headaches, particularly ones that are always on one side, you should seek out care from a neurologist who is also a headache specialist.