What is occipital nerve stimulation?
Occipital nerve stimulation is a type of neuromodulation which uses electrical stimulation to alter the activity of certain nerves. Occipital nerve stimulation specifically targets nerves in the head and neck to relieve headaches and facial pain.
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What is it used to treat?
Occipital nerve stimulation can be used to treat chronic headaches (headaches that occur for more than 15 days a month, for longer than three months) that have not responded to previous treatments.
It can also be used for neuralgia or neuropathic pain, which is caused by damage or injury to the nerves. This type of pain may not respond to normal painkillers like paracetamol, or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen.
Occipital nerve stimulation has also been shown to be effective in treating chronic migraines and cluster headaches (sudden, excruciating headaches that usually affect one side of the head and eyes, and occur in short bursts of time).
How is it performed and what is involved?
Occipital nerve stimulation involves implanting a small electrical device, similar to a pacemaker, under the skin on the chest. This is connected to tiny electrical wires (electrodes), which are placed under the skin around the back of the head.
Electrical impulses are sent through the electrodes to specific nerves. These impulses are not usually noticeable but can occasionally cause a tingling sensation. There are many theories as to exactly how occipital nerve stimulation improves pain, but it is thought to work by stopping overactive nerves carrying pain signals to the brain.
A trial period is carried out before permanently implanting the device. This involves connecting the electrodes to an external electrical device. The patient keeps a pain diary for approximately a week. The permanent device is only implanted if a significant improvement in pain is reported. Positioning of the temporary trial device involves minor day case surgery, while implanting a permanent device will usually require a one to two night hospital stay.
Patients are taught how to operate the device themselves. This includes how to adjust the amount of stimulation, charge the device and prevent it getting damaged. Our specialist teams will follow up with each patient and stay in close contact with them following the procedure.
What are the risks?
Implanting the occipital nerve stimulation system is relatively safe with a low rate of complications. As with every surgery, there are some potential risks to consider. These include:
- Infection in the area where the system is implanted
- Movement or dislodging of the electrodes
- Excessive bleeding from wounds
- Failure of the stimulator device
- Failure to improve pain, or in some very rare cases, an increase in pain
- Allergic reaction to any drugs given during the procedure
Our expert surgeons here at The London Clinic and their experienced teams make every effort to minimise these risks. They will be able to fully discuss the general risks of occipital nerve stimulation and any specific risks to individual patients beforehand.
HOW EFFECTIVE IS IT?
Occipital nerve stimulation does not cure the source of the pain but it can help block the pain signals from reaching the brain.
Treatment response varies between individuals but several studies have shown that patients using occipital nerve stimulation treatment have a reduction in the number of days with headache, intensity of pain and pain-associated disability. The use of occipital nerve stimulation in the treatment of migraines has shown a 50% reduction in the intensity of the pain.
Why choose The London Clinic?
Our reputation has been built on offering exceptional standards of medical expertise and a longstanding commitment to our patients’ safety and wellbeing. We offer personalised care by our multidisciplinary team and ensure every patient is treated to the highest standards. With our state-of-the-art facilities and access to expert specialists in the field of neuromodulation, we can ensure a rapid diagnosis and prompt treatment.
What the experts say...
Occipital nerve stimulation can be effective for various headache syndromes when medications and other treatments have failed and really transform pain and quality of life.