Occipital neuralgia is a commonly missed headache diagnosis. The symptoms for headaches can be quite different. Occipital neuralgia can mimic migraine headaches but do not respond to standard migraine medications. Occipital neuralgia rarely occurs as a headache syndrome by itself. The majority of patients with occipital neuralgia have one or more other types of headache including: migraines, tension headache, rebound headache and cluster headaches. Occipital neuralgia is frequently misdiagnosed as migraine or cluster headaches. Patients with prominent face pain as part of their occipital neuralgia may be incorrectly diagnosed with tic delaroux (trigeminal neuralgia – a type of facial pain.)

Occipital neuralgia is caused by an irritation of the occipital nerve as is comes through the muscles in the back of the neck. The occipital nerve is formed from branches of the second and third cervical nerve roots. This nerve passes posteriorly up the back of the head, piercing through the muscles of the upper neck. The occipital nerve then curves over the back of the head to the frontal area, stopping at approximately the hair line. This nerve provides pain and sensory information over the back 2/3 of the head. When the nerve becomes irritated from various causes such as strained or tense neck muscles, whiplash injury, neck arthritis or even just sleeping wrong – getting a kink in your neck. These can all result in occipital neuralgia (also called occipital headache or occipital neuropathy).

The headache symptoms of occipital neuralgia include upper neck pain, pain at the base of the skull, which may be on one or both sides, and pain traveling up the back up the head as far forward as the forehead. Some patients experience pain behind the eyes or even facial pain. The pain is commonly made worse by laying on your back. The back of the head or scalp can be sore to touch. The head pain can be anywhere from a nagging aching pain to an excruciating migraine headache type of pain, which can be debilitating. The latter type of occipital neuralgia pain is frequently missed and instead treated as a migraine. Most migraine therapies do not work to relieve occipital neuralgia.

Diagnosis of occipital neuralgia is made by careful neurological examination of the patient. Most individuals have normal exams except for exquisite tenderness at the base of the skull, in the area of the occipital nerve. If pressing on this area reproduces the occipital head pain, the diagnosis is made. Treatments can include the use of anti-inflammatory agents such as aspirin, Tylenol, naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin.) Ice to the back of the neck and head can provide temporary relief. One of the most effective therapies, which can be curative for occipital neuralgia, is an occipital nerve block. This is a very safe procedure and consists of injecting a mixture of a local anesthetic with a long acting cortisone. This injection is put in the neck muscles just below the skull base, in the area where the occipital nerve pierces through the muscles. The needle is directed away from the spinal cord and is outside the skull so there is no chance of injury to the spinal cord or brain. The anesthetic works immediately and may cause some temporary scalp numbness. The cortisone is long acting – slow release so that it may take a week to be fully effective. Success rates of up to 80% have been reported. In patients with additional types of headaches, it is not uncommon to add an antidepressant to prevent migraines and other similar headaches. The antidepressants are the mainstay therapy in headache treatment and prevention and have nothing to do with their use for treatment of depression. If you think you have occipital neuralgia or have persistent headaches, particularly ones that are always on one side, you should seek out care from a neurologist who is also a headache specialist.


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There are many studies that have shown excellent health benefits from taking omega 3 type fish oil. Omega 3 oils are found in fish oils, flax seed and several vegetable oils including canola, soybean and olive oils. There are different components to these oils that provide health benefits. The DHA and EPA oils in fish oil have been linked to reducing hardening of the arteries and lowering triglycerides. They also have the benefit of lowering blood pressure and heart rate to a mild degree. This all results in an overall reduction in risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack, sudden death, irregular heart beat and stroke. Fish oil can also have a blood thinning effect to reduce abnormal blood clotting, similar to that of aspirin. This latter effect is a two edge sword because too much fish oil can increase the risk for serious bleeding. Generally three grams (3000 mg) daily or less is considered safe. Daily intake of Omega 3 should come from dietary sources with no more than 2000 mg (2 grams) coming from supplements.

Omega-3 is derived from high fat containing fish such as albacore tuna, salmon, flounder, pompano, anchovies, sardines and mackerel. Fish in the equatorial regions around South America have a higher content of Omega 3 than do those caught in the more northern areas around Scandinavia and Iceland. Interestingly flax seed, flax oil and kiwi fruit contain higher amounts of Omega 3 oils than do that of fish. Flax seed can be added to cereal, baked goods or eaten alone. Fish oil capsules are available in 1000 mg and 1200 mg sizes. It is important to not confuse Omega-3 oils with Omega-6 oils. Omega-6 oils do not confer the health benefits that Omega-3 fish oils do. Omega-6 is found in high concentrations in various types of vegetable oils derived from the following: corn, safflower, sesame, soybean, sunflower and walnuts. It is important to reduce the consumption of Omega-6 oils as they compete with Omega-3 oils, thereby decreasing the benefit from Omega-3 fish oils. Eating fish twice a week is the standard recommendation, in addition to taking any supplements.

There have been many studies showing the beneficial effects of Omega-3 oils. The main benefit comes from reduction of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), reduced coronary artery disease, decreased risk of heart attack and potentially fatal heart beat rhythms. Omega-3 oils have also been shown in some studies to have a brain cell protective effect in such conditions as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Fish oils can improve memory to a degree. Several studies have shown that 2000-3000 mg of Omega-3 oil intake daily, has a potent antiinflammatory action as that of high dose ibuprofen. Patients with arthritis or rheumatoid arthritis may benefit from Omega-3, without the risks associated with taking
antiinflammatory drugs for extended periods (such as bleeding stomach ulcers, kidney and liver damage.) It should be noted that the fish oil capsules have a more robust effect for reducing inflammation than that of flax seed oils.

Omega-3 oils can reduce total triglyceride levels and increase “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels. These oils also have an overall beneficial effect on the blood vessels, both in increasing blood flow and improving the health and stability of the vessel walls themselves. This effect is in part responsible for the risk reduction in having a stroke or heart attack as well as patients with problematic varicose veins and leg pains due to peripheral vascular disease. A word of caution: in patients with congestive heart failure, consultation with your cardiologist is first advised. As fish oil has a blood thinning effect, you should check with your doctor if you are taking prescription blood thinners. Additional benefits from Omega-3 fish oils have been shown in improving retinal (visual) function and possibly slowing down macular degeneration. Studies in psychiatric conditions have demonstrated Omega-3 beneficial effects in reducing depression, lessening memory loss and improving memory function.


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