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Extracranial Nerves in the Posterior Part of the Head: Anatomic Variations and Their Possible Clinical Significance

Becser, Noémi MD*†; Bovim, Gunnar MD, PhD*; Sjaastad, Ottar MD, PhD*


Study Design. An anatomic study of the peripheral nerves innervating the occipital region.

Objectives. To study the topography of the extracranial occipital nerves, to define optimal locations for anesthetic nerve blockades, to provide guidelines to use with the suboccipital surgical approach, and to search for structures with putative pathogenetic implications in cases of unilateral headache.

Summary of Background Data. There is little consensus in the literature concerning the sensory innervation of the scalp. Previous clinical and morphologic studies have not proven the existence of an entrapment mechanism in cases of unilateral head pain. Specific sites for anesthetic blockades have been defined only partly with reference to topographic landmarks.

Methods. The topography of the greater occipital (n = 20), the minor occipital (n = 19), and the greater auricular nerves (n = 17) was studied by dissection of 10 embalmed cadavers. Measurements of internerve distances and distances to defined landmarks were supplemented by drawings and photographs.

Results. A great variability in nerve topography was seen interindividually and intraindividually. The greater occipital nerve ascended between 5 mm and 28 mm from the midline along the intermastoid line. The minor occipital nerve was found between 32 mm and 90 mm from the midline along the same landmark. In most cases, both the greater occipital nerve and the minor occipital nerve pierced the aponeurosis after branching. Thirteen greater occipital nerves and eight minor occipital nerves also were embedded in this tissue. Twelve of the 20 greater occipital nerves formed a rich network around the occipital artery. However, anatomic structures with an imminent risk of causing entrapment were not observed.

Conclusion. The results of this study suggest that optimal locations for blockade techniques should be reconsidered. The acquired knowledge concerning greater auricular and minor occipital nerves behind the sternocleidomastoid muscle may aid in preventing intraoperative injuries.

From the *Department of Neurology, University Hospitals of Trondheim, and †the Institute of Morphology, University Hospitals of Trondheim, Trondheim, Norway.

Supported in part by a fellowship from Soros Foundation.

Acknowledgment date: October 22, 1997.

Acceptance date: December 17, 1997.

Device status category: 1.

Address reprint requests to: Noémi Becser, MD; Department of Neurology; University Hospitals of Trondheim; N-7006 Trondheim; Norway.

© Lippincott-Raven Publishers.