OCCIPITAL NEURALGIA AND CERVICOGENIC
Effective Date: August 16, 2010
Table of Contents Page
COMMERCIAL COVERAGE RATIONALE......................................................................................... 1
MEDICARE & MEDICAID COVERAGE RATIONALE...................................................................... 2
BACKGROUND ...................................................................................................................................... 3
CLINICAL EVIDENCE........................................................................................................................... 4
U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION.................................................................................... 12
APPLICABLE CODES .......................................................................................................................... 13
REFERENCES ....................................................................................................................................... 14
PROTOCOL HISTORY/REVISION INFORMATION ........................................................................ 17
INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE
This protocol provides assistance in interpreting UnitedHealthcare benefit plans. When deciding
coverage, the enrollee specific document must be referenced. The terms of an enrollee's document
(e.g., Certificate of Coverage (COC) or Evidence of Coverage (EOC)) may differ greatly. In the event
of a conflict, the enrollee's specific benefit document supersedes this protocol. All reviewers must first
identify enrollee eligibility, any federal or state regulatory requirements and the plan benefit coverage
prior to use of this Protocol. Other Protocols, Policies and Coverage Determination Guidelines may
apply. UnitedHealthcare reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to modify its Protocols, Policies and
Guidelines as necessary. This protocol is provided for informational purposes. It does not constitute
COMMERCIAL COVERAGE RATIONALE
Injection of local anesthetics and/or steroids, used as occipital nerve blocks, is not medically
necessary for the diagnosis and treatment of occipital neuralgia or headaches including migraine and
There is insufficient evidence that occipital nerve blocks can be used as a specific diagnostic test for
occipital neuralgia or headaches. The efficacy of local injection therapies for occipital neuralgia or
cervicogenic headache and other headaches has not been established in well designed clinical trials.
Surgery including but not limited to the following is not medically necessary for the treatment of
occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache:
1. Occipital neurectomy, or
2. Partial posterior intradural C1-C3 rhizotomy, or
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3. Rhizotomy of C1-C3 spinal dorsal roots, or
4. Surgical decompression of second cervical nerve root and ganglion, or
5. Surgical decompression of the occipital nerve.
The available evidence is insufficient to conclude that surgery is an effective treatment for occipital
neuralgia or cervicogenic headache. The long-term efficacy of surgical procedures for occipital
neuralgia or cervicogenic headache has not been established in well designed clinical trials.
Radiofrequency ablation or denervation is not medically necessary for the treatment of occipital
neuralgia or cervicogenic headache.
The available evidence from published studies is not sufficient to conclude that radiofrequency
ablation or denervation is an effective treatment for occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache.
Well-designed studies are needed to evaluate the potential advantages of radiofrequency ablation for
these conditions and to identify which patients would benefit from this procedure.
Neurostimulation or electrical stimulation of the occipital nerve is not medically necessary for the
treatment of occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache.
The available studies were limited and had significant methodological flaws, making it difficult to
draw conclusions regarding the efficacy of electrical stimulation for the treatment of cervicogenic
headache or occipital neuralgia. There are no randomized controlled studies in the medical literature
comparing occipital neurostimulation to established treatment options or a sham procedure.
MEDICARE & MEDICAID COVERAGE RATIONALE
Medicare does not have a National Coverage Determination for the Treatment of Occipital Neuralgia
and Cervicogenic Headache.
There is a Local Coverage Determination for Nevada for Blocks and Destruction of Somatic and
Sympathetic Nerves. The Local Coverage Determination is as follows:
Nerve blocks cause the temporary interruption of conduction of impulses in peripheral nerves or nerve
trunks by the injection of local anesthetic solutions. Somatic and sympathetic nerves may be injected.
Nerve blocks may be used intraoperatively to prevent pain of the procedure, diagnostically to ascertain
cause of pain, or therapeutically to relieve chronic pain. Blocks are useful in a variety of circulatory
and neuropathic syndromes.
It is considered to be prudent and good medical practice to evaluate the patient thoroughly and to
provide the modality most likely to establish or treat the presumptive diagnosis.
Nerve blocks are indicated in patients who are not adequately controlled by appropriate doses of
medications or who are refractory to medical therapy.
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Usually, up to three injections or three sets of injections in any given 60-day period are sufficient for a
course of treatment. If additional nerve blocks are given, then documentation supporting the necessity
must be in the clinical record.
Steroids are often included and injected for anti-inflammatory effects. Consideration should be given
to the cumulative dose injected and limitations made to avoid steroid complications.
Surgically induced lesions of nerve tracts, which involve the destruction of nerve tissue, are primarily
indicated for controlling the chronic or acute pain arising from conditions such as terminal cancer or
lumbar degenerative arthritis. Induced lesions of nerve tracts may be produced by surgically cutting the
nerve (rhizolysis), chemical destruction of the nerve, or by the creation of a radiofrequency lesion.
This A/B MAC has determined that program payment will be made for chemical, surgical, and radio
frequency destruction of a nerve.
The medical record must contain documentation indicating the reason for the procedure, a description
of the procedure performed, and the method of destruction used. Medical review will determine if the
procedure performed is medically reasonable and necessary. The payment or denial will coincide with
the current standard of medical practice.
For Medicare and Medicaid Determinations Related to States Outside of Nevada:
Please review Local Coverage Determinations that apply to other states outside of Nevada.
Important Note: Please also review local carrier Web sites in addition to the Medicare Coverage
database on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Website.
Cervicogenic headache and occipital neuralgia are conditions whose diagnosis and treatment have been
gradually refined over the last several years. This terminology has come to refer to specific types of
unilateral headache thought to arise from impingement or entrapment of the occipital nerves and/or the
upper spinal vertebrae. Compression and injury of the occipital nerves within the muscles of the neck
and compression of the second and third cervical nerve roots are generally felt to be responsible for the
symptoms, including unilateral and occasionally bilateral head, neck, and arm pain. The criteria for
diagnosis of these entities currently include those of the International Headache Society (IHS) and the
Cervicogenic Headache International Study Group.
Various treatments have been advocated for cervicogenic headache and occipital neuralgia. Oral
analgesics and anti-inflammatory agents are effective for some patients, but there is a population of
patients who do not experience pain relief with these medications. Local injections, epidural steroid
injections, radiofrequency ablation of the planum nuchae, electrical stimulation, rhizotomy,
Occipital Neuralgia & Cervicogenic Headache Page 3 of 17
ganglionectomy, nerve root decompression, discectomy and spinal fusion have all been investigated in
the treatment of cervicogenic headache and occipital neuralgia.
Radiofrequency ablation is performed percutaneously. During the procedure, an electrode that
generates heat produced by radio waves is used to create a lesion in a sensory nerve with the intent of
inhibiting transmission of pain signal from the sensory nerve to the brain.
Neurostimulation or electrical stimulation is commonly used for control of chronic pain. Electrical
stimulation can be delivered in 3 ways: transcutaneously, percutaneously, and using implantable
Diagnostic Occipital Nerve Blocks
Greater occipital nerve blocks have been advocated as a diagnostic test for cervicogenic headache and
occipital neuralgia. However, criteria and standards for diagnostic occipital nerve blocks remain to be
defined. There are no well-designed clinical trials that clearly indicate that injection of the greater
occipital nerve can be used as a specific diagnostic test for headaches and occipital neuralgia.
The diagnostic value of greater occipital and supra-orbital nerve blockades in patients with
cervicogenic headache (n=24), migraine without aura (n=14), and tension-type headache (n=14) was
investigated. The pain reduction after greater occipital nerve blockade was significantly more marked
in the cervicogenic headache group than in the other categories. Moreover, pain reduction in the
forehead was generally only found in the cervicogenic headache patients (77%). Pain reduction was
significantly more marked following the greater occipital than the supra-orbital nerve blockade. The
volume effect per se was evaluated by saline injection. This procedure did not result in distinct pain
reduction. The effect obtained in cervicogenic headache is, accordingly, probably due to the local
anaesthesia. The present results support the postulate that different pathogenetic factors probably are
responsible for cervicogenic headache, tension-type headache, and migraine without aura (Bovim and
Antonaci et al. (2001) described the adherence to diagnostic criteria of a series of 132 patients enrolled
on the basis of two clinical criteria: (1) unilateral headache without side-shift, and (2) pain starting in
the neck and spreading to the fronto-ocular area. The investigators concluded that an improvement of
the current diagnostic International Headache Society (HIS) criteria might make it possible to avoid the
existing, partial overlap of cervicogenic headache (CEH) with headache associated with disorders of
the neck (HN) and migraine without aura (M). They stated further that extensive use should be made of
the greater occipital nerve (GON), and other, blockades in the routine work-up of CEH, both in the
differential diagnosis and in the mixed forms (CEH + M, and CEH + HN), in order to improve the
efficiency of the current diagnostic system.
According to the International Headache Society, the diagnostic criteria for cervicogenic headache
include the following (International Headache Society, 2005):
A. Pain, referred from a source in the neck and perceived in one or more regions of the head and/or
face, fulfilling criteria C and D
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B. Clinical, laboratory and/or imaging evidence of a disorder or lesion within the cervical spine or soft
tissues of the neck known to be, or generally accepted as, a valid cause of headache
C. Evidence that the pain can be attributed to the neck disorder or lesion based on at least one of the
1. demonstration of clinical signs that implicate a source of pain in the neck
2. abolition of headache following diagnostic blockade of a cervical structure or its nerve supply using
placebo- or other adequate controls
D. Pain resolves within 3 months after successful treatment of the causative disorder or lesion.
Therapeutic Occipital Nerve Blocks
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, Naja et al. (2006a) evaluated the effectiveness
of nerve stimulator-guided occipital nerve blockade in the treatment of cervicogenic headache. The
reduction in analgesic consumption was the primary outcome measure. Fifty adult patients diagnosed
with cervicogenic headache were randomly divided into two equal groups of 25 patients each. All
patients in both groups received greater and lesser occipital blocks, whereas only 16 patients in each
group received facial nerve blockade in association with the occipital blocks. The control group
received injections of an equivalent volume of preservative-free normal saline. Pain was assessed using
the visual analog scale (VAS) and the Total Pain Index (TPI). Forty-seven patients entered into the
final analysis as three patients were lost to follow-up. Anesthetic block was effective in reducing the
VAS and the TPI by approximately 50% from baseline values. Analgesic consumption, duration of
headache and its frequency, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, phonophobia, decreased appetite, and
limitations in functional activities were significantly less in block group compared to control group.
The nerve stimulator-guided occipital nerve blockade significantly relieved cervicogenic headache and
associated symptoms at two weeks following injection. This study is limited by a small sample size.
Another major limitation of the study is the short duration of follow-up. The patients included in the
study were followed for 2 weeks, so long-term outcome was not evaluated. The difficulty in blinding
when numbness resulted in patients who received anesthetic blockade is another limitation of this
In a follow-up trial, the same group evaluated 47 patients with cervicogenic headaches and found that
87% of the patients required more than one occipital nerve injection to achieve 6 months of pain relief
Inan et al. (2001) compared the greater occipital nerve (GON) and C2/C3 nerve blocks in the diagnosis
and treatment of cervicogenic headache in 28 patients. In both cases, repeated blocks proved to have a
long-lasting effect in the treatment of this disorder, with both GON and C2/C3 blocks being found to
be equally effective. This study is limited by a small sample size.
In a prospective case series, injections of depot methylprednisolone into the region of the GON and
lesser occipital nerve (LON) produced complete relief of cervicogenic headache in 169 out of 180
patients for a period ranging from 10 to 77 days, the mean duration of relief being 23.5 days. This
study is nonrandomized and uncontrolled, limiting the validity of its conclusions. (Anthony, 2000).
Kuhn et al. (1997) reviewed a series of 12 patients treated with local anesthetic block of the occipital
nerve, resulting in relief lasting from days to months. One author also reported effective short-term
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pain relief associated with local steroid injection around the nerve; duration of pain relief was
approximately 1 month (Anthony, 1992). Intracutaneous sterile water and saline injection were
reported as ineffective by another investigator, despite the observed effect of this treatment on low
back pain (Sand, 1992).
Martelletti et al. (1998) compared the results of 9 patients with cervicogenic headaches who received
epidural steroid injections and 6 patients with chronic tension headaches who received the same
procedure. A decrease in the Numeric Intensity Scale and the Drug Consumption Index were observed
in the cervicogenic headache patients.
Yi et al. (2005) evaluated 4 patients with cervicogenic headache and found that these patients achieved
complete or significant pain relief lasting up to 2 months with occipital nerve blocks.
In the 2003 Hayes Directory Report on local injection therapy and neurosurgery for cervicogenic
headache and occipital neuralgia, it was concluded that the available evidence comes primarily from
small retrospective case series studies and is insufficient to conclude that either local injection or
surgery are effective treatments for occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache. Local injection
therapies and nerve blockades using steroids and anesthetic agents offer only temporary pain relief.
In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, Ambrosini et al. (2005) assessed the preventive effect of an
ipsilateral steroid injection in the region of the greater occipital nerve on cluster headache (CH).
Sixteen episodic (ECH) and seven chronic (CCH) CH outpatients were included. After a one-week
run-in period, patients were allocated by randomization to the placebo or verum acupuncture arms and
received on the side of attacks a suboccipital injection of a mixture of long- and rapid-acting
betamethasone (n=13; verum-group) or physiological saline (n=10; placebo-group). Acute treatment
was allowed at any time, additional preventative therapy if attacks persisted after 1 week. Three
investigators performed the injections, while four others, blinded to group allocation, followed the
patients. Follow-up visits were after 1 and 4 weeks, where after patients were followed routinely.
Eleven verum-group patients (3 CCH) (85%) became attack-free in the first week after the injection
compared to none in the placebo-group. Among them eight remained attack-free for 4 weeks.
Remission lasted between 4 and 26 months in five patients. According to the investigators, a single
suboccipital steroid injection completely suppressed attacks in more than 80% of CH patients. A
limitation of this study is small sample size.
Busch et al. (2007) evaluated the clinical outcome in 15 chronic cluster headache patients before and
after unilateral nerve blockade of the greater occipital nerve with 5 ml prilocain (1%) on the headache
side. Nine of the 15 cluster patients reported some minor improvement in their headache. Six patients
did not report any clinical change. Peres et al. (2002) treated 14 cluster headache patients with greater
occipital nerve block as transitional therapy (treatment initiated at the same time as preventive
therapy). The mean number of headache-free days was 13.1 + 23.6. Four patients (28.5%) had a good
response, five (35.7%) a moderate, and five (35.7%) no response. Headache intensity, frequency and
duration were significantly decreased comparing the week before with the week after the nerve block.
These studies are limited by small sample size and lack of control groups.
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Afridi et al. (2006) found that 26 of 57 injections in 54 migraineurs yielded a complete or partial
response that lasted for the partial response a median of 30 days. For cluster headache 13 of 22
injections yielded a complete or partial response lasting for a median of 21 days for the partial
response. Tenderness over the GON was strongly predictive of outcome, although local anesthesia
after the injection was not. The presence or absence of medication overuse did not predict outcome.
The investigators concluded that GON injection is a useful tool in some patients that provides interim
relief while other approaches are explored.
Naja et al. (2009) also conducted a prospective, randomized, single-blinded comparison between
bilateral occipital blockade and conventional expectant therapy in adults suffering from postdural
puncture headache (PDPH). Fifty adult patients diagnosed with PDPH were randomly divided into two
equal groups of 25 each. All patients in the block group received greater and lesser occipital nerve
blocks, whereas the control group received adequate hydration, complete bed rest, and analgesics.
Forty-seven patients entered into the final analysis as three patients withdrew from study. Complete
pain relief was achieved in 68.4% of block patients after 1 to 2 blocks, with 31.6% ultimately receiving
up to 4 blocks. Visual analog scales were significantly lower in the block group, and the block group
consumed significantly less analgesics in the follow-up period compared with control group. Block
patients had significantly shorter hospital stays and sick leave periods. The investigators concluded that
occipital nerve blockade is superior to expectant conservative therapy in the treatment of patients
suffering from PDPH.
Tobin et al. (2009) conducted a chart review of 108 occipital nerve blocks (ONBs). ONB failed in 22%
of injections overall. Of the other 78%, the mean decrease in head pain was 83%, and the benefit lasted
a mean of 6.6 weeks. Failure rate without symptomatic medication overuse (SMO) was 16% overall,
and with SMO was 44% overall. In those who did respond, overall magnitude and duration of response
did not differ between those with and those without SMO. Without SMO, ONB failure rate was 0% for
postconcussive syndrome, 14% for occipital neuralgia, 11% for non-intractable migraine, and 39% for
intractable migraine. With SMO, failure rate increased by 24% in occipital neuralgia, by 36% for all
migraine, and by 52% for non-intractable migraine. The investigators concluded that SMO tripled the
risk of ONB failure, possibly because medication overuse headache does not respond to ONB.
In an open pilot study, Leinisch-Dahlke et al. (2005) investigated the effect of bilateral block of the
greater occipital nerve with 50 mg prilocaine and 4 mg dexamethasone in patients with chronic tension
type headache. From 15 patients, only one patient described a headache relief after initial exacerbation
of headache for 2 days. Headache intensity was unchanged in 11 patients. In three patients, the
headache worsened in the first hours or days after injection. The investigators concluded that a block
of the greater occipital nerve is not effective in the treatment of chronic tension type headache.
Other studies have been performed that indicate that greater occipital nerve blocks may be an effective
treatment for patients with migraine and postconcussive headaches; however, these studies had small
sample sizes and did not have control groups (Young, 2008; Akin, 2008; Caputi, 1997; Hecht, 2004;
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A number of different surgical procedures have been studied for the treatment of occipital neuralgia
and cervicogenic headache. Bovim et al. (1992) investigated the immediate and long-term results of
surgical release of the greater occipital nerve within the trapezius for treatment of patients who had
previously had relief of the symptoms of cervicogenic headache with nerve blockade. Of 50 patients
responding to a questionnaire sent to 58 patients, 46% reported immediate relief and 36% reported
some immediate improvement. However, after a mean follow-up of 14.5 months, only 56% of patients
felt that the procedure had been beneficial. The authors recommended further investigation into the
efficacy of alternative procedures.
Pikus and Phillips (1996) performed a total of 39 microsurgical decompression procedures of the C2
root and ganglion in 35 patients who met diagnostic criteria for cervicogenic headache. Long-term
pain-free outcome (assessed after a mean of 21 months) was achieved by 33% of patients. Another
46% of patients reported adequate relief, while 21% had recurrence of pain at an average of 18 months
after surgery. No specific prognostic characteristics were discernible from the analysis performed on
the patient population.
Jansen (2000) reported on the results of three different surgical treatments in 102 patients with
cervicogenic headache that had been nonresponsive to physical or drug therapy. Thirty-eight patients
were treated with C2 ganglionectomy, and 64 patients with demonstrable spinal structural
abnormalities were treated with dorsal or ventral spinal decompression and fusion. Complete relief of
pain was reported by 80% of the entire group, and 60% to 80% relief was experienced by about 15% of
patients. Six percent of patients experienced no relief of pain.
In a study conducted by Kapoor et al. (2003), 17 patients with occipital neuralgia underwent dorsal
rhizotomy. At a mean follow-up of 20 months, 65% of patients had complete relief of symptoms, 12%
had partial relief, and 24% had no relief of symptoms.
A retrospective study conducted by Gille et al. (2004) evaluated 10 patients with occipital neuralgia
who underwent neurolysis of the occipital nerve and sectioning of the inferior oblique muscle. After a
mean follow-up of 37 months, the investigators concluded this new surgical treatment provided good
results if patients are well chosen.
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. 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
investigators found that 80.5% of patients experienced at least 50% pain relief and 43.4% of patients
experienced complete relief of headache. Minimum duration of follow-up was 12 months. (Ducic et
In a retrospective chart review, Acar et al. (2008) evaluated 20 patients who underwent C2 and/or C3
ganglionectomies for intractable occipital pain. All patients reported preoperative pain relief following
cervical nerve blocks. The mean follow-up was 42.5 months. Average visual analog scale scores were
9.4 preoperatively and 2.6 immediately after procedure. Ninety-five percent of patients reported short-
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term pain relief (<3 months). In 13 patients (65%), pain returned after an average of 12 months (C2
ganglionectomy) and 8.4 months (C3 ganglionectomy). Long-term results were excellent, moderate
and poor in 20, 40 and 40% of patients, respectively. The investigators concluded that cervical
ganglionectomy offers relief to a majority of patients, immediately after procedure, but the effect is
short lived. Nerve blocks are helpful in predicting short-term success, but a positive block result does
not necessarily predict long-term benefit and therefore cannot justify surgery by itself.
Several small, retrospective studies have reported positive effects of various surgical treatments such
as dorsal nerve root section, occipital neurectomy, partial posterior rhizotomy, and nerve release
(Hayes, 2003). Some authors have described substantial pain relief after rhizotomy or spinal fusion in
patients with cervicogenic headache associated with demonstrable spinal structural abnormalities, such
as those due to degenerative changes or motion disorders of the upper spine (Hayes, 2003). However,
the available evidence comes primarily from small retrospective case series studies and is insufficient
to conclude that surgery is an effective treatment for occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache.
Surgical procedures such as nerve root decompression or neurectomy may provide effective pain relief
for some patients; however, patient selection criteria for these procedures have not been defined, and
recurrence is common. (Hayes 2003) The 2008 Hayes Search and Summary on cervical
microdecompression surgery for occipital neuralgia concludes that there is insufficient evidence to
assess the safety and efficacy of cervical microdecompression surgery for occipital neuralgia (Hayes,
In a randomized controlled trial of 30 patients with cervicogenic headache, 15 patients received
radiofrequency (RF) treatments, and 15 patients underwent local injections of the greater occipital
nerve followed by transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation when necessary. There were no
significant differences between the 2 treatment groups at any time during the study. Eight weeks after
the initial treatment, 80% of the patients in the RF-group (Group I) and 66,7% of the patients in the
local injection group (Group II) reported a successful treatment in terms of a positive global perceived
effect and/or an visual analogue scale (VAS) reduction of at least 50% compared to the initial VAS.
Sixteen weeks after the initial treatment, the success rate in Group I was 66,7% compared to 55,3% in
Group II. After one year, there was no difference of the success rate in Group I (53,3%) compared to
Group II (50%). A relatively high percentage of patients (33,3%) in both groups were not followed
anymore because of several reasons. The most important reason was the disappointment in the
treatment. (Haspeslagh, 2006)
Stovner et al. (2004) conducted a randomized, sham-controlled study of 12 patients with cervicogenic
headaches. Six patients underwent radiofrequency neurotomy and six patients received sham
treatment. Patients were followed for 2 years. Patients treated with neurotomy were somewhat
improved at 3 months, but later follow-up showed no significant differences between the 2 treatment
In a clinical audit of 18 chronic cervical pain patients treated with pulsed radiofrequency, satisfactory
pain relief of at least 50% was achieved in 72% of the patients at 8 weeks (Van Zundert, 2003). Thirty-
three percent of the patients continued with good treatment outcome more than one year after
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Govind et al. (2003) studied 49 patients with occipital headaches who underwent percutaneous
radiofrequency neurotomy. Eighty-eight percent of the patients achieved a successful outcome
(complete relief of pain for at least 90 days). The median duration of relief in these patients was 297
Lee et al. (2007) assessed the clinical efficacy of radiofrequency (RF) cervical zygapophyseal joint
neurotomy in patients with cervicogenic headache. A total of thirty consecutive patients suffering from
chronic cervicogenic headaches for longer than 6 months and showing a pain relief by greater than
50% from diagnostic/prognostic blocks were included in the study. These patients were treated with
RF neurotomy of the cervical zygapophyseal joints and were subsequently assessed at 1 week, 1
month, 6 months, and at 12 months following treatment. RF neurotomy of the cervical zygapophyseal
joints significantly reduced the headache severity in 22 patients (73.3%) at 12 months after the
treatment. The limitations of this study were small sample size and lack of a control group.
The 2008 Hayes Health Technology Brief on radiofrequency ablation for treatment of cervicogenic
headache concluded that the evidence for radiofrequency ablation (RFA) for cervicogenic headache is
limited and that no definitive conclusions can be drawn regarding its efficacy and safety. The results
were promising in case series studies that included definitive diagnostic nerve blocks as part of the
selection criteria. However, the randomized controlled trials failed to show a beneficial effect of RFA.
In a systematic review, Jasper and Hayek (2008) evaluated the strength of evidence that occipital nerve
stimulation (ONS) is an effective treatment of chronic headache. Ten observational studies, of which 4
were prospective, and a number of case series, case reports, and reviews were identified. No
randomized controlled trials (RCT) were identified. All of the studies reported positive outcomes
including improved pain relief, reduced frequency, intensity, and duration of headaches with reduced
medication consumption. ONS was reportedly successful for 70 to 100% of patients. Reduction of pain
in patients with occipital headaches and transformed migraine is significant and rapid; for cluster
patients the improvement may be less dramatic and it may take several months of occipital stimulation
to achieve relief. No long-term adverse events occurred. Several short-term adverse events occurred
including infection, lead displacement, and battery depletion. The body of evidence as a whole is a
level of strength of IV, limited.
Johnstone and Sundaraj (2006) evaluated 8 patients with intractable occipital neuralgia. All patients
were offered a trial of percutaneous stimulation and if they achieved 50% pain reduction, a permanent
lead was implanted. Seven patients proceeded to a permanent stimulator. The visual analogue score
was reduced in 5 of the 7 patients after permanent implantation.
In a study conducted by Kapural et al. (2005), 6 patients with treatment refractive chronic headaches
were treated with a midline approach for occipital nerve electrical stimulation lead implantation.
During the 3-month follow-up, mean visual analog scale scores changed from 8.66 to 2.5, and pain
disability index improved from 49.8 to 14.0. The authors concluded that the midline approach has
advantages compared with the submastoid approach particularly regarding stability of the system.
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Slavin et al. (2006) analyzed the records of 14 consecutive patients with intractable occipital neuralgia
treated with peripheral neurostimulation. Ten patients proceeded with system internalization after a
50% pain reduction during the trial period. Two patients had their systems explanted because of loss of
stimulation effect or significant improvement of pain, and one patient had part of his hardware
removed because of infection. The authors concluded that overall, the beneficial effect from chronic
stimulation persisted in more than half of the patients for whom the procedure was considered and in
80% of those who significantly improved during the trial and proceeded with internalization.
Weiner and Reed (1999) conducted a case series involving 13 patients (17 implant procedures) with
intractable occipital neuralgia treated with peripheral neurostimulation. Follow-up ranged from 1.5-6
years. Twelve patients reported good and excellence response with greater than 50% pain control and
little or no additional medication. The 13th patient was subsequently explanted following symptom
Amin et al. (2008) evaluated the efficacy of supraorbital nerve stimulation for treatment of intractable
supraorbital neuralgia in a case series of 16 patients. The patients underwent a trial of supraorbital
nerve stimulation, and efficacy was assessed after 5-7 days. Ten patients consented to undergo
permanent implantation of the stimulator. Opioid consumption and headache scores were monitored
preoperatively and at timed intervals for 30 weeks. Headache scores decreased, and opioid
consumption was reduced in half, and these beneficial accomplishments were maintained up to 30
weeks after implantation.
The 2007 Hayes Technology Brief on electrical stimulation of the occipital nerve for the treatment of
occipital neuralgia summarized the available evidence stating that the results of the available studies
provide preliminary evidence that subcutaneous electrical stimulation of the greater and lesser occipital
nerves offers long-term relief in some patients who have intractable occipital neuralgia. Although the
available studies of this technique are small and uncontrolled, most of the patients in these studies had
experienced symptoms of occipital neuralgia for more than two years and had failed to respond
adequately to other conservative and aggressive treatments. Since occipital neuralgia is a rare disorder,
it does not seem feasible to conduct large-scale, randomized controlled trials to evaluate the efficacy of
electrical stimulation therapy versus other standard therapies; however, larger studies with longer
periods of follow-up are needed to confirm the benefits reported in the available studies. (Hayes, 2007)
The quality of evidence provided by studies for treatment of occipital neuralgia and cervicogenic
headache is generally low. Injection therapies, nerve blockades using steroids and anesthetic agents,
and surgical procedures such as nerve root decompression or neurectomy may provide effective pain
relief for some patients. However, the available studies were limited and had significant
methodological flaws, making it difficult to draw conclusions regarding the efficacy of the various
treatments. In addition, most treatments do not provide permanent curative results and recurrences
occurred in a high proportion of patients.
Additional Search Terms
cranial nerves, methylprednisolone, trigger points
Occipital Neuralgia & Cervicogenic Headache Page 11 of 17
U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
Local Injection Therapy: Various local anesthetics are approved by the FDA for use in diagnostic and
therapeutic nerve blockade. Botulinum toxin-A (BTX-A or BOTOX) is a neurolytic agent that has also
been approved by the FDA for treatment of some conditions. However, BTX-A is not specifically
approved for treatment of cervicogenic headache or occipital neuralgia; the use of BTX-A for these
diagnoses is off-label use. Additional information is available at:
gSafetyInformationforHeathcareProfessionals/ucm070366.htm. Accessed February 2010.
Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA): RFA is a procedure and, therefore, is not subject to regulation by the
FDA. However, the devices used to perform RFA are regulated by the FDA premarket approval
process. There are numerous devices listed in the FDA 510(k) database approved for use in performing
RFA. Two product codes are dedicated to these devices, one for radiofrequency lesion generators
(GXD) and one for radiofrequency lesion probes (GXI). Additional information is available at:
http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfPMN/pmn.cfm. Accessed February 2010.
Electrical Stimulation: Electrical stimulation of the occipital nerve for the treatment of occipital
neuralgia and cervicogenic headache is a procedure and, therefore, not subject to regulation by the
FDA; however, the devices used to perform electrical stimulation are regulated via the FDA 510(k)
premarket approval process. The Renew™ Quattrode® device received 510(k) approval (K000852) on
January 19, 2001, and the Pisces Quad® device was approved (K040568) on March 25, 2004.
Additional information is available at:
http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfPMN/pmn.cfm. Accessed February 2010.
Currently no implantable pulse generator, radiofrequency device, or leads are approved by the FDA for
peripheral occipital nerve stimulation to treat occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headaches.
Occipital Neuralgia & Cervicogenic Headache Page 12 of 17
The codes listed in this policy are for reference purposes only. Listing of a service or device code in
this policy does not imply that the service described by this code is a covered or non-covered health
service. Coverage is determined by the benefit document. This list of codes may not be all inclusive.
CPT® Code Description
Injection/infusion of neurolytic substance (eg, alcohol, phenol, iced saline
62281 solutions), with or without other therapeutic substance; epidural, cervical or
63185 Laminectomy with rhizotomy; 1 or 2 segments
63190 Laminectomy with rhizotomy; more than 2 segments
64405 Injection, anesthetic agent; greater occipital nerve
64553 Percutaneous implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; cranial nerve
64573 Incision for implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; cranial nerve
Destruction by neurolytic agent, paravertebral facet joint nerve; cervical or
thoracic, single level
Destruction by neurolytic agent, paravertebral facet joint nerve; cervical or
64627 thoracic, each additional level (List separately in addition to code for primary
64722 Decompression; unspecified nerve(s) (specify)
64744 Transection or avulsion of; greater occipital nerve
64802 Sympathectomy, cervical
64804 Sympathectomy, cervicothoracic
64999 Unlisted procedure, nervous system
CPT® is a registered trademark of the American Medical Association.
HCPCS Code (not Description
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device, two lead,
Implantable neurostimulator electrode (with any number of contact points),
Radiofrequency transmitter (external) for use with implantable
neurostimulator radiofrequency receiver
Implantable neurostimulator pulse generator, single array, rechargeable,
Occipital Neuralgia & Cervicogenic Headache Page 13 of 17
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PROTOCOL HISTORY/REVISION INFORMATION
Medical Technology Assessment Committee
Corporate Medical Affairs Committee
Occipital Neuralgia & Cervicogenic Headache Page 17 of 17