Many people have heard of migraine headaches and, even if they’ve never experienced one, they realize that they don’t want to. The person who experiences chronic headaches or migraines may be more likely to hear another term, occipital neuralgia, if they consult with a specialist about their condition. Occipital neuralgia may be an underlying cause of frequent headaches. Here, we discuss how you might recognize if you may be experiencing compression on the occipital nerves and how a headache specialist may help you regain a better quality of life.
Symptoms of Occipital Neuralgia
Occipital neuralgia is the inflammation of one or more of the three occipital nerves. These nerves are situated at the back of the head and neck. When compressed by inflammation, the nerves may signal severe pain or they may experience an odd sensation, such as pulsing, combined with pain in the upper extremities or face. When inflammation flares up, a person may experience ringing in the ears, dizziness, nausea, or vomiting along with some degree of pain.
What Causes Occipital Neuralgia?
We know that occipital neuralgia is the inflammation of at least one occipital nerve. This inflammation is typically instigated in some way. One of the ways that occipital neuralgia may begin is with an injury. Whiplash injuries, due to the way they stretch the muscles, connective tissue, and nerves at the base of the skull, are notorious for triggering ongoing inflammation in the area of the occipital nerves.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Occipital Neuralgia
A specialist often reaches the diagnosis of occipital neuralgia through the process of elimination. Other potential causes of migraines and chronic headaches are often explored before the nerves are directly assessed. To diagnose occipital neuralgia, a specialist may inject one of the occipital nerves with an anesthetic, referred to as a nerve block. If pain improves but not entirely, a second block is administered into an adjacent occipital nerve. If discomfort remains, the final occipital nerve may be injected with the anesthetic. If pain is caused by occipital neuralgia, nerve blocks will significantly improve or eliminate pain.
When occipital neuralgia is confirmed as the source of chronic pain, a specialist will consider several treatment options. These include prescription medications such as serotonin inhibitors, anti-depressants, or narcotics. Injections of steroids or Botox may also be considered as a way to soothe inflammation and reduce muscle constriction around compressed nerves. Headache surgery is also a potential treatment option for long-term improvement.
If you are interested in learning more about how to improve or eliminate chronic headaches, your first step may be to contact the Headache and Neuralgia Center at Keck Medicine of USC. If you need assistance getting started, contact our office directly at 323-442-0416.1