BACKGROUND: Occipital neuralgia is a headache syndrome characterized by paroxysmal headaches localizing to the posterior scalp. The critical diagnostic feature is symptomatic response to local anesthetic blockade of the greater or lesser occipital nerve. Further characterization is debated in the literature regarding the diagnosis and optimal management of this condition. The authors present the largest reported series of surgical neurolysis of the greater occipital nerve in the management of occipital neuralgia. METHODS: A retrospective chart review was conducted to identify 206 consecutive patients undergoing neurolysis of the greater or, less commonly, excision of the greater and/or lesser occipital nerves. A detailed description of the procedure is presented, as is the algorithm for patient selection and timing of surgery. Preoperative and postoperative visual analogue pain scores and migraine headache indices were measured. Success was defined as a reduction in pain of 50 percent or greater. RESULTS: Of 206 patients, 190 underwent greater occipital nerve neurolysis (171 bilateral). Twelve patients underwent greater and lesser occipital nerve excision, whereas four underwent lesser occipital nerve excision alone. The authors found that 80.5 percent of patients experienced at least 50 percent pain relief and 43.4 percent of patients experienced complete relief of headache. Mean preoperative pain score was 7.9 ± 1.4. Mean postoperative pain was 1.9 ± 1.8. Minimum duration of follow-up was 12 months. There were two minor complications. CONCLUSION: Neurolysis of the greater occipital nerve appears to provide safe, durable pain relief in the majority of selected patients with chronic headaches caused by occipital neuralgia.
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