A consecutive series of 100 patients was studied to determine the prevalence of third occipital nerve headache in patients with chronic neck pain (> three months in duration) after whiplash. Seventy one patients complained of headache associated with their neck pain. Headache was the dominant complaint of 40 patients, but was only a secondary problem for the other 31. Each patient with headache underwent double blind, controlled diagnostic blocks of the third occipital nerve. On two separate occasions the nerve was blocked with either lignocaine or bupivacaine, in random order. The diagnosis of third occipital nerve headache was made only if both blocks completely relieved the patient's upper neck pain and headache and the relief lasted longer with bupivacaine. The prevalence of third occipital nerve headache among all 100 whiplash patients was 27% (95% confidence interval (95% CI) 18-36%) and among those with dominant headache the prevalence was as high as 53% (95% CI 37-68%). There were no distinguishing features on history or examination that enabled a definitive diagnosis to be made before the nerve blocks. Those patients with a positive diagnosis, however, were significantly more likely to be tender over the C2-3 zygapophysial joint (p = 0.01). Third occipital nerve headache is a common condition in patients with chronic neck pain and headache after whiplash. Third occipital nerve blocks are essential to make this diagnosis.
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