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Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is a specific type of headache distinguished by chronic pain that throbs, pulses, and sends electric-like shocks through one or both sides of the head. It is caused by irritation of the greater occipital nerves found on each side of the head. These nerves emerge from between the cervical vertebrae (upper neck) and make their way through the muscles at the back of the head and into the scalp. The pain of occipital neuralgia typically radiates from the upper neck, through the back of the head, behind the ears, and to the top of the scalp—occasionally reaching as far as the forehead. Although the condition is not life-threatening, it dramatically affects quality of life.

Causes of Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia can occur spontaneously, or it may result from occipital nerve compression due to a variety of causes:

  • Head trauma
  • Whiplash
  • Inflammation
  • Infection
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Diabetes, gout & vasculitis
  • Very tight neck muscles
  • Holding the head in a downward & forward position

Conservative Treatment for Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is often self-limited, and improvement can occur spontaneously. Sometimes the disease is limited to a single bout of pain which subsides after damage to the nerve is repaired or lessened. More severe forms of occipital neuralgia with persistent chronic pain require medical interventions that include:

  • Anti-convulsant medications like gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • Antidepressants like Lyrica & Cymbalta, which can help with neuropathic pain
  • Spinal cord stimulation
  • Steroid injections
  • CT-guided nerve block to confirm the condition

Surgical Treatment for Occipital Neuralgia

Occipital neuralgia is often misdiagnosed for years as migraines or other unresolved problems, and treatment is ineffectual. When medical interventions fail to manage the pain and a nerve block confirms an accurate diagnosis, vascular decompression surgery is a viable option. Dr. McLaughlin of Princeton Brain, Spine & Sports Medicine has successfully treated occipital neuralgia patients with a procedure called intradural cervical C1-C3 rhizotomy. This type of nerve decompression surgery generally has minor side effects and benefits include:

  • 70-75% success rate
  • Low risk of worsening the condition
  • Ability to stop using high narcotic doses
  • Improved quality of life

Treatment Success with Princeton Brain, Spine, & Sports Medicine

Dr. McLaughlin and the fellowship-trained team of PBSSM neurosurgeons have successfully treated occipital neuralgia for over 15 years. Our affiliation with leading research hospitals keeps us at the forefront of pioneering treatment techniques for often misdiagnosed and hard-to-treat neurological conditions.If you suffer from unresolved pain in the head and neck, call to schedule a diagnostic examination with Dr. McLaughlin at 215.741.3141 in Pennsylvania and 609.921.9001 in New Jersey. To request information about PBSSM’s advanced spinal, cranial, and neurosurgical care or to schedule a consultation, contact PBSSM using our convenient online form.

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