04 Nov Could Occipital Nerve Block Cure Chronic Headaches?
A chronic headache is a debilitating and often untreatable affliction. Patients can go years without proper pain relief, and those that do get relief from current medications often find the therapy incomplete – only making the pain slightly more bearable. Occipital nerve blocks could pave the way to more effective treatment.
What is an occipital nerve block?
To understand an occipital nerve block and why it is often so effective you have to understand why some patients get chronic headaches. Pain is a sensation produced by nerves that travel from the body to the central nervous system (ie the brain and the spinal cord). When signals are sent you perceive pain. Simple right? Not quite. Scientists have understood for a long time that these signals can be amplified or dampened down. Usually when you injure yourself pain signals are transmitted to the brain to tell you to rest and recover (aka don’t put weight on your bad foot! Let it heal!). But sometimes this process needs to be altered. In the battle for instance soldiers that are wounded gain nothing from feeling the excruciating pain of their injuries.
It’s in their best interests to NOT feel any pain until they are out of danger. And this is exactly what happens. Many soldiers report they felt nothing at the time they were wounded in battle and it was only when they came to safety they felt the pain. This is because the brain dampens down the pain signal. But this can go the other way – the brain can increase the pain signals – and sometimes it does so when it shouldn’t. Occipital nerve blocks try and rectify this issue by stopping the signals being transmitted in the first place. By injecting a local anesthetic and a steroid around a nerve called the greater occipital nerve (which transmits signals from your scalp) they can stop the signals and in doing so reduce the pain. It’s usually a simple injection of a small amount of fluid and the entire procedure takes only a few seconds. The procedure is very safe and carries very few risks.
Does it work?
A number of small studies have been undertaken into this therapy – which is not widely used in clinics across America. It seems to provide good pain relief to patients but may need to be repeated. In some clinics, it is given as part of a wider restorative pain management therapy that aims to target the root cause of chronic pain rather than prescribing catch-all drugs. Although more studies into its use are needed, the limited research that does exist suggests it is a good treatment for a chronic headache and should be used more widely than it currently is. An overreliance on medications has hindered the development of effective chronic pain tools – and occipital nerve block could be one of those.