Headache is one of the main symptoms of Vertebral Dissection.
In one of the biggest studies (over 161 cases of vertebral and carotid dissections), 69% of vertebral cases had headache. Almost all reported pain – back of the head (83%), non-pulsatile (56%), pulsatile (44%).
Pain located in the neck was found in 46%.
Most headaches resolved within 72 hours.
Sometimes the diagnosis of vertebral artery dissection is not so straight forward.
There are several reports of cluster headache actually being associated with dissection of the vertebral artery on the same side as the cluster headache.
These patients reported intermittent pain around the eye with watering of the eye, but at the very onset neck pain was sometimes found (always pays to go back to the very start when taking headache histories!)
High resolution CT angiography can reveal arterial dissection, as can MRI Angiography.
It is not usually necessary to have formal catheter cerebral angiography unless an intervention such as repair of a pseudo-aneurysm is planned.
The prognosis for the patient will depend on whether there has been a stroke.
About 12% of vertebral arterial dissection will have headache and headache alone.
A stroke or TIA is a common finding in vertebral artery dissection, and 3% will have imaging findings of subarachnoid haemorrhage. Usually the dissection, at imaging, is found at the C1/C2 vertebral level (>70% cases).
A mortality of 2% has been reported.
Other conditions that could cause a pain in the back of head:
- Vertebral Dissection
- Occipital Neuralgia or Cervicogenic Headache
- C2 root pain e.g. from atlanto-axial dislocation/li>
- Third occipital nerve pain (post-traumatic C2-3 zygo-apophyseal joint pain)
- Neck-tongue syndrome – atlanto-axial subluxation, causing neck pain and tongue numbness (some sensory tongue fibres pass through C2 spinal nerve, not trigeminal nerve)
If there are no references listed, please notify me, as this box should contain a list of information sources, or a link to a ‘Systematic Review’ of the topic discussed on this page.
Here is a link to 70 references on vertebral dissection that are on Google Drive.
You could also scroll through the reference table below – if more convenient.
Is Your Headache Dangerous?
Feeling safe is your first step
Smartphone, Tablet, PC ready
by Dr Raeburn Forbes MD(Hons)
Helpful email updates included