Occipital Nerve Blocks: What to Know
Your greater occipital nerve is responsible for most of the feeling in the back and top of your head.
Irritation or inflammation of this nerve can cause headaches.
People with occipital nerve irritation often report pain starting from the base of their skull on one side of their head.
The pain may extend as far as the temple, forehead, and behind the eyes.
An occipital nerve block is one of the most common procedures to provide pain relief for migraines and chronic headaches.
Keep reading to find out more about occipital nerve blocks, including the:
- potential side effects
What is an occipital nerve block?
An occipital nerve block is a procedure that involves injecting pain-relieving medication and steroids into your greater and lesser occipital nerves.
It’s primarily used as a treatment for chronic migraines and headaches.
What to expect during the procedure
During the procedure, you’ll lie face down on the table.
A medical professional will apply an anesthetic to the back of your head just above your neck.
They’ll then insert a fine needle into the injection site until the needle reaches your occipital nerve.
After the injection, the area will become numb as the pain-relieving medication takes effect.
Some people notice improvements in their pain in as little as 15 minutes.
The procedure only takes a couple of minutes to complete.
You should arrange to have someone drive you home after the procedure, but you’ll typically be able to drive and return to normal activities the next day.
How long does the pain relief last?
The full pain-relieving effects of the steroids can take several days to take effect.
The amount of time that an occipital nerve block reduces pain varies from person to person.
However, they can cause pain relief for months in some people.
What’s an occipital nerve block typically used for?
An occipital nerve block is used to reduce chronic head pain.
Some of the specific conditions it’s commonly used to treat include the following.
- Migraines. Migraines are a neurological condition that usually causes intense headaches on one side of the head. People who have migraines commonly also experience nausea, dizziness, and mood changes.
- Cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are a short but painful series of reoccurring headaches. People who experience them tend to get them seasonally.
- Spondylosis of the cervical facet joints. Also called osteoarthritis of the joints in your neck, spondylosis of the cervical facet joints is often caused by the age-related breakdown of your neck bones and discs.
- Occipital neuralgia. Occipital neuralgia is a headache disorder that usually causes shooting pain in the back of your head, one side of your neck, and behind your ears. Pain is caused by damage to the greater and lesser occipital nerves.
Are there side effects associated with an occipital nerve block?
Occipital nerve blocks are generally considered safe.
However, like any medical procedure, there are some risks.
The most common side effect is pain or irritation at the injection site.
Some other side effects that you may experience after injection include the following.
- no improvement in symptoms
- stronger headaches
- allergic reactions
- bleeding at the injection site
- small risk of nerve damage
How effective are occipital nerve blocks in the treatment of migraine headaches and other head pain?
Overall, occipital nerve blocks seem to be a relatively effective pain management option.
People with chronic headache pain generally get three to four injections per year.
It’s rare to get more than three in a 6-month period.
The more injections you get, the higher your risk is of having steroid-related side effects.
Occipital nerve blocks for migraines
In a 2018 study, researchers looked at the effectiveness of greater occipital nerve blocks for treating migraine pain.
The study looked at a total of 562 patients over a 5-year period.
More than 82 percent of participants in the study reported having moderate or significant pain relief from the treatment.
A 2018 review of studies published in the journal Clinical Neurology and Neuroscience also concluded that occipital nerve blocks can significantly reduce pain intensity for people with migraines.
Occipital nerve blocks for cluster headaches
Occipital nerve blocks seem to be effective at treating headaches caused by cluster headaches.
In a 2013 study, researchers looked at the effect of a greater occipital nerve block on 83 people with chronic cluster headaches.
They found that participants who underwent an occipital nerve block every 3 months had significant improvements in symptoms.
More than half of the people involved in the study had significant improvements after their first treatment.
Occipital nerve blocks for occipital neuralgia
Occipital nerve blocks also seem effective at treating occipital neuralgia.
A 2018 study looked at the effectiveness of occipital nerve blocks on 44 people with occipital neuralgia.
Researchers found that after 6 months of treatment, more than 95 percent of the participants self-reported that they were satisfied with their pain reduction.
Precautions to be aware of
Although occipital nerve blocks are generally safe, there are some risks involved.
Some people have an elevated risk of developing side effects.
You may want to talk to your healthcare provider about alternative pain management techniques if you:
- have diabetes
- are allergic to steroids
- are taking blood-thinning drugs
- have a heart condition
- currently have an infection
Occipital nerve blocks seem to be a safe and effective method for treating headaches and migraines.
If you’re experiencing head pain, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis.
Your healthcare provider will also be able to tell you if they think occipital nerve blocks are a good treatment option for you.
Creating healthy habits may help you to manage your headaches.
- minimizing stress
- reducing alcohol consumption
- avoiding bright lights and sounds
- drinking plenty of water
- getting adequate sleep
- staying as active as possible