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NINDS Occipital Neuralgia Information Page


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What is Occipital Neuralgia?

Occipital neuralgia is a distinct type of headache characterized by piercing, throbbing, or electric-shock-like chronic pain in the upper neck, back of the head, and behind the ears, usually on one side of the head.  Typically, the pain of occipital neuralgia begins in the neck and then spreads upwards.  Some individuals will also experience pain in the scalp, forehead, and behind the eyes.  Their scalp may also be tender to the touch, and their eyes especially sensitive to light.  The location of pain is related to the areas supplied by the greater and lesser occipital nerves, which run from the area where the spinal column meets the neck, up to the scalp at the back of the head.  The pain is caused by irritation or injury to the nerves, which can be the result of trauma to the back of the head, pinching of the nerves by overly tight neck muscles, compression of the nerve as it leaves the spine due to osteoarthritis, or tumors or other types of lesions in the neck.  Localized inflammation or infection, gout, diabetes, blood vessel inflammation (vasculitis), and frequent lengthy periods of keeping the head in a downward and forward position are also associated with occipital neuralgia.  In many cases, however, no cause can be found.  A positive response (relief from pain) after an anesthetic nerve block will confirm the diagnosis.

Is there any treatment?

Treatment is generally symptomatic and includes massage and rest. In some cases, antidepressants may be used when the pain is particularly severe. Other treatments may include local nerve blocks and injections of steroids directly into the affected area.

What is the prognosis?

Occipital neuralgia is not a life-threatening condition.  Many individuals will improve with therapy involving heat, rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and muscle relaxants.  Recovery is usually complete after the bout of pain has ended and the nerve damage repaired or lessened.

What research is being done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes at the National Institutes of Health conduct research related to pain and occipital neuralgia in their clinics and laboratories and support additional research through grants to major medical institutions across the country.  Much of this research focuses on understanding the basic mechanisms of pain and testing treatments in order to find better ways to treat occipital neuralgia.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Occipital Neuralgia Clinical Trials

Organizations

Column1 Column2
American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA)
P.O. Box 850
Rocklin, CA   95677-0850
ACPA@theacpa.org
http://www.theacpa.org
Tel: 916-632-0922 800-533-3231
Fax: 916-652-8190

National Headache Foundation
820 N. Orleans
Suite 411
Chicago, IL   60610-3132
info@headaches.org
http://www.headaches.org
Tel: 312-274-2650 888-NHF-5552 (643-5552)
Fax: 312-640-9049



Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892



NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last updated December 14, 2009