Nerves in the head and neck perform several critical functions, from stimulating facial expressions to transmitting information. The greater occipital nerves, which carry impulses between the spinal column and the brain, extend from the base of the skull through the muscles at the back of the head and up into the scalp area. A simple outpatient procedure called an occipital nerve block can relieve specific types of headache pain that result from inflammation of the occipital nerves.
Types of Occipital Pain
Severe recurring headaches that feel as if they start where the neck meets the skull likely originate in the occipital nerves. The pain may migrate to one side of your head or the other, or it may radiate across your scalp. Sometimes you feel occipital pain behind one of your eyes, and sometimes it causes light sensitivity.
Nerve inflammation, also known as occipital neuralgia, is one reason you may experience recurring head pain. It might result from nerve compression or trauma. In other cases, these nerves simply transmit pain originating elsewhere in your body. You may feel shooting pains, throbbing, stinging pain or a burning sensation. Your scalp may become tender.
Medical professionals use the term “cervicogenic” to describe such headaches, which means they emanate from the neck. Headaches that grip your forehead, sinus area or ears are unlikely to be occipital. Your physician is best qualified to help determine the source of your pain.
The Occipital Nerve Block Procedure
An occipital nerve block (ONB) is a simple, temporary procedure that does not require hospitalization. Your doctor injects a nerve-blocking medication that numbs the occipital pain and relieves your headaches.
In the exam room, the pain management physician locates the offending nerve at the back of your head. He or she then injects a small amount of medication in the scalp above the nerve. The thin needle causes only minimal discomfort, and rarely, the medication may sting.
Headache relief often arrives in just a few minutes due to the anesthetic in the injection. The medication also contains steroids that address inflammation and pain. The relief provided by the medication may last a day or several weeks.
You can go home soon after the procedure. If you experience a good result, you may elect to repeat the occipital nerve block in the future. You have permanent options as well, including neuro-stimulation treatment.
Possible Complications of an Occipital Nerve Block
This procedure is largely a safe one that causes very few complications. In rare cases, you might experience:
• Hair loss at the injection site
• Allergic reaction to the anesthetic
• Allergic reaction to the steroid
• Temporary numbness in the surrounding region
• Temporarily slurred speech
• Temporary trouble swallowing