In human biology, the occipital nerve refers to one of two main nerves of the spine, specifically called the greater and the lesser occipital nerve. Both are important in supplying nerve connections to the head and scalp. They originate between the second and third vertebrae of the spine. The greater nerve supplies the top of the scalp, and the area of the head above the ears and over the salivary glands. The lesser one supplies the back of the scalp, in the area behind the ears.
If one or both of the nerves are damaged, the resulting disorder is called occipital neuralgia. Some common ways in which the nerves may be damaged include physical trauma such as blows to the head or neck, whiplash, and some excessively repetitive neck movements. In addition, neuralgia may result as a complication of some other medical conditions, such as a tumor in the spinal bone or various types of arthritic conditions. Pain in this nerve is normally experienced in the form of chronic headaches. They may be accompanied by chronic neck pain and pain behind the eyes, as well. Patients may also report an increased sensitivity to light.
Occipital neuralgia may be treated with certain medicines designed to reduce the activity in the occipital nerves. Another treatment is a nerve block, which involves an injection at the base of the skull. The drug used in the injection is usually a steroid, accompanied by a painkilling drug, which provides a temporary anesthetic effect. The treatment aims to reduce inflammation and pain in the nerve. The anesthetic from the treatment may greatly reduce the patient’s pain quickly, while the steroid acts more slowly, but may have a beneficial effect lasting for several months.
Treatment of the occipital nervous system is sometimes used for other conditions, such as migraines, tension headaches, or other chronic headaches. One such treatment is occipital nerve stimulation, in which a tiny transmitter device is implanted at the base of the skull, near these nerves. The device sends electrical signals to the nerves at regular intervals, acting almost like a pacemaker. The signals from the transmitter are designed to mask the headache pains.