Human beings have two occipital nerves, and they begin at the top of the spinal cord and travel toward the forehead. They are what allow people to feel pain, a change in temperature and touch. When these nerves become inflamed or compressed, the sufferer can experience severe pain. This pain has been described as “tingling, electrical and shooting.” It can be so harsh that some people find just touching the scalp to be extremely uncomfortable. Others experience numbness.
Causes of Occipital Neuralgia
Occipital neuralgia has many causes, but in some cases, physicians cannot definitively say how the disease originated. This situation can become complicated because it has been confused with other types of headaches. For example, because some patients may experience sensitivity to light and a throbbing pain that is located on one side of the head, their headaches can be confused with migraine headaches.
Sometimes, occipital neuralgia has a very clear cause. If a patient has arthritis of the neck, it can compress the occipital nerves, and this leads to occipital neuralgia. Physicians have also found that the compression can be caused by prior surgeries. Injury to the scalp region or the back of the head can also encourage this malady to develop. In some cases, the nerves become entrapped by the muscles surrounding them.
Occipital neuralgia can exist on its own, but it has also been known to accompany several other medical conditions. People with osteoarthritis, neck tumors, cervical disc disease, infections, gout, diabetes and inflamed blood vessels are susceptible to developing occipital neuralgia. The condition is diagnosed in women more often than in men.
Treatment of Occipital Neuralgia
When the occipital nerves are entrapped, they become sensitive and inflamed, and this is what is causing the pain that patients experience. The muscles in the area can begin to spasm and cramp, and these symptoms need to be relieved along with the pain. Doctors recommend over-the-counter medications that reduce the spasms and inflammation, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Applying heat to the area and massage are also effective remedies for some patients. A diagnostic/therapeutic occipital nerve block under ultrasound guidance may also be recommended.
The above-mentioned remedies are not sufficient for more severe cases, so physicians may take a stronger approach. Prescription medications may be necessary, and these include muscle relaxants, anticonvulsant drugs and steroid injections. They may also suggest physical therapy. Another option is occipital nerve stimulation. During this procedure, the physician places a device near the affected area and electrically stimulates the occipital nerve, and it is known to be an effective treatment in certain cases.
The spinal cord contains two occipital nerves, and they can become inflamed or compressed for several reasons, including injury, prior surgeries or other medical conditions. Treatment for this ailment may be over-the-counter medications and applying heat to the affected area, but more severe cases may require prescription medications. If none of the above solutions are sufficient to end the discomfort, some people opt to have microvascular decompression, occipital nerve stimulation or occipital nerve block.