Long-Term Clinical Outcome of Peripheral Nerve Stimulation for Chronic Headache and Complication Prevention


Linqiu Zhou 1 , * , Avi Ashkenazi 2 , Joseph W Smith 3 , Na Jen 4 , Timothy R Deer 5 , Chen Zhou 6

1 Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

2 Doylestown Hospital, Doylestown, PA, USA

3 Department of Anesthesiology, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

4 Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital, Mercy Health System, Darby, PA, USA

5 The Center for Pain Relief, Charleston, WV, USA

6 Jefferson Medical School, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, USA

How to Cite: Zhou L, Ashkenazi A, Smith J W, Jen N, Deer T R, et al. Long-Term Clinical Outcome of Peripheral Nerve Stimulation for Chronic Headache and Complication Prevention, Anesth Pain Med. 2016 ; 6(4):e35983. doi: 10.5812/aapm.35983.


Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine: 6 (4); e35983
Published Online: July 3, 2016
Article Type: Research Article
Received: January 2, 2016
Revised: May 18, 2016
Accepted: May 30, 2016


Background: Subcutaneous peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) has emerged as a useful tool in the treatment of intractable headaches. However, complications such as skin erosion, infection and lead migration have adversely affected clinical outcome, and occasionally led to treatment cessation.

Objectives: Here we report the results of peripheral nerve stimulator implantation performed on 24 patients with various chronic headaches at our center over a period of 9 years. We describe the complications of the procedure and their prevention with a modified surgical technique.

Patients and Methods: We searched our database for patients with chronic refractory headaches who had undergone PNS. Patients were assessed before being considered for PNS, and their pain characteristics were reviewed. Following a successful trial, patients were implanted with a permanent peripheral nerve stimulator. Selection of target nerves was based on headache diagnosis and head pain characteristics. Patients were followed for an average of 4.9 years. Headache characteristics before and after treatment were compared.

Results: Twenty four patients were included in the study. All patients reported on improvement in head pain intensity, duration and frequency three months after permanent device implantation Mean total pain index (TPI) decreased significantly, from 516 ± 131 before the procedure to 74.8 ± 61.6 at the last follow up (P < 0.00001). There were no acute post-operative infections. Three patients had their stimulator removed. The self-rated treatment satisfaction was excellent in 54% of the patients, very good or good in 42%, and fair in 4%.

Conclusions: Our results support the use of PNS in some patients with refractory chronic headaches. Appropriate surgical planning and technique are important to achieve good clinical outcome and to minimize complications.

1. Background

Peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) refers to the placement of a lead near the anatomic location of a nerve to directly stimulate it (1). This technique has been used to the cranial nerves for treatment of chronic intractable headache of various types (2-4), including migraine (5-7), cluster headache (8, 9), occipital neuralgia (10, 11) cervicogenic headache (12) and supraorbital neuralgia (13). Promising outcomes have been reported, with efficacy rates in pain reduction and functional improvement ranging from 40% to100% (2-4, 8, 14, 15). While this positive response is encouraging, complications of the therapy, that include acute and late-onset infections, lead migration and skin erosion, have been of concern (3, 4, 6-8, 14-16). These complications significantly impact the clinical application of this treatment modality, and could impede a more widespread use of it in the future.

2. Objectives

Here we report the results of peripheral nerve stimulator implantation performed on 24 patients with various chronic headaches at our center over a period of 9 years. We describe the complications of the procedure and their prevention with a modified surgical technique.

3. Patients and Methods

This was a retrospective chart review, conducted at a large academic medical center in an urban setting and at a private practice pain center. The study was approved by the Thomas Jefferson University institutional review board. All patients were initially evaluated for headaches. The study period was from August 2006 to January 2015.

We searched our database for patients] with chronic refractory headaches, who had undergone PNS for this indication. These patients had failed multiple conservative therapies, including medications, psychotherapy and physical therapy. They were referred by headache specialists to consider PNS therapy.

All patients were thoroughly evaluated at our center by one of the authors (LZ). They also underwent a psychological evaluation before a PNS trial was considered. The decision as to which scalp nerve to target for stimulation was based on the patient’s clinical presentation and headache diagnosis. For patients who experienced > 50% headache reduction during the 7 day trial, implantation of a permanent PNS was approved (of the total patients who underwent the trial, all but one met the above criterion, received a permanent PNS implantation, and participated in the study). Implantation areas included the occipital nerve, supraorbital nerve and auriculotemporal nerve. Implantations were done uni or bilaterally.

Clinical outcomes, including Total Pain Index (TPI) (17), patient satisfaction and complication rates, were documented before and after surgery. TPI (total pain index): an integrated measure of the intensity and duration of headache attacks over a two week period defined by the Formula 1:

Formula 1.

where D1, number of hours with headache that is slight, does not limit normal activity; D2, number of hours with headache that is moderate, limiting normal activity but does not confine patient to bed; D3, number of hours of headache that is severe, limiting all activities causing patient to be bedridden (17).

All patients were seen approximately 14 days after the procedure, then monthly for 6 months. Thereafter, they were followed every six months, either at the clinic or by a phone call, for 6 months to 9 years (average follow-up period: 4.9 years). Outcome evaluation was done by asking the patients about their pain intensity, as well as duration and frequency of headaches, before the procedure and at each follow-up interview. Patient’s satisfaction and treatment complications (if any) were also documented. Statistics:

We used student’s t-test to compare pain parameters before treatment and at follow up. The level of statistical significance was set at 0.01.

4. Results

We identified 24 patients (5 males, 19 females), who had undergone PNS for their chronic refractory headaches. Their mean age was 45.8 years (range: 22 - 66 yeas), and their average headache duration was 10.3 years (range: 2 - 25 years). Patients were diagnosed with chronic migraine (15/24), occipital neuralgia or cervicogenic headache (9/24).

Three of the 24 patients were not followed after their leads were removed. The remaining 21 patients were followed periodically as described above.

All 24 patients experienced significant headache relief for three months after permanent device implantation, with a decrease in pain intensity, duration and frequency (TPI). Mean TPI decreased significantly, from 516 ± 131 before the procedure to 74.8 ± 61.6 at the last follow up (P < 0.00001). Three patients had their stimulator removed; one due to skin erosion and infection at the silastic anchor site (as mentioned above), the second due to skin allergic reaction to the stimulation lead (18), and the third because of her religious belief. The remaining twenty-one patients have been followed since surgery. They have maintained the same degree of pain relief throughout the follow up period without significant complications.

Overall, the surgical outcomes were excellent in these 24 patients (Table 1). There were no acute post-operative infections. In the early three patients of this group, silastic anchors were used. One of them had lead migration one year after implantation, requiring revision. The same patient also developed scalp erosions on both sides at different times of treatment, requiring revision. After re-implantation with modified technique without silastic anchors, he has had no further complications, keeping his stimulation therapy. Another one of the early three patients developed skin erosion at the silastic anchor site two years after implantation, requiring lead removal. Due to these problems, the surgical technique was modified, with significant reduction in complication rate (Tables 1 and 2). After revision of the surgical technique, 21 consecutive patients were treated and evaluated. In this group, there were no major post-operative complications, such as skin erosions, infection or lead migrations. The self-rated treatment satisfaction was excellent in 13 of the 24 (54%) patients, very good or good in 10 (42%), and fair in 1 (4%) patient.

Table 1. Headache Characteristics Before and After Peripheral Scalp Neurostimulationa
NoSexAge, yHistory of HAHA FrequencyHA DurationTPITPI Reduction (%)Nerve(s) StimulatedSelf-Rated OutcomeF/U DurationComments (See Tab 2)
1aF4714dailyrarelyconstant2 h57414075.6L. occi /supra/aurigood9
2aM485daily1 - 2/wconstant2 - 3 h3908877.4Bil. occi/supra/aurigood91
3aM5315daily1 - 2/wconstant2 - 3 h85412485.5Bil. occiexcellent22
4F5415dailynoneconstantnone3640100Bil. occi/supraexcellent53
5F466dailyrarelyconstant2 - 3 h6302895Bil. occi /supragood74
6F425daily2/wconstant2 - 3h4204888.6L. occi/supragood7
7F6215daily1 - 2/wconstant3 - 4 h8403695.7Bil. occiexcellent7
8F50205/wnoneconstantnone5040100Bil. occiexcellent7
9M5915dailydaily8 - 9 hours2 - 3 h36414061.5L. occi/suprafair6
10M6620dailynone0.5 to 1 hnone3360100L. occi/supraexcellent6
11F385dailyrarelyconstant1 - 2 h3503290.9R. occi/supraexcellent6
12F5020dailyrarelyconstant1 - 2 h3643291.2R. occi/supraexcellent6
13F6020dailynoneconstantnone4340100L. occiexcellent6
14F413daily1/wconstant1-2 h6161098.4Bil. cci/supra/aurivery good6
15F515daily3/wconstant1 - 2 h5041696.8Bil. occiexcellent6
16M313dailynone8 - 12 hnone3900100L. occi/supraexcellent5
17F332dailyrarelyconstant0.5 - 1 h476499.2R. occi/supraexcellent4
18F233daily3 - 5/wconstant2 - 3 h53212476.7Bil. supragood4
19F485daily2 - 3/wconstant2 - 3 h53012077.3R. occi/auriexcellent4
20F373.5daily3/wconstant1 - 2 h4209677.1R. occi/supragood2.5
21F245dailydailyconstant12 h84033660Bil. occi/supragood1.5
22F2213dailydailyconstant14 h86828068Bil. occi/supragood1.5
23F5625dailyrarelyconstant1 - 2 h3606083.3Bil. occiexcellent0.35
24F585dailyrarelyconstant2 - 3 h4358081.6Bil. occigood0.36

Abbreviations: Freq, frequency; HA, headache; Dur, duration; Bil, bilateral; L, left; R, right; h, hour; F/U, follow-up; occi, occipital nerve; supra, supraorbital nerve; auri, auriculotemporal nerve.

aPatients number 1 - 3 were the early cases with silastic anchors. The other patients (numbers 4 - 24) were treated using the revised surgical technique.

Table 2. The Complications and Comments from Table 1
No.ComplicationsYears after the implantManagementOutcome
1Excellent. Pt remained with leads
One supraorbital lead migration1 yearLead revision
Infection over one side of plastic anchor due to skin erosion1.5 yearsLocal debridement & lead revision
Infection at the other side due to a similar cause2 yearsLead revision
2Infection over the plastic anchor due to skin erosion2 yearsDevice removal
3Pain at the battery sites (subclavicular)3 yearsBatteries relocated from the infraclavicular fossa to the buttocksExcellent. Pt remained with leads
4Infection at neck over the anchor knot4 yearsDebridementExcellent. Pt remained with leads
5Skin allergic reaction to the lead component3 monthsFailed conservative therapy & device removal (18).
6The patient reported significant headache reduction after implantation. However, three months later she requested device removal due to her religious beliefs.3 monthsDevice removal

5. Discussion

We found that PNS of various nerves in the cranial area was effective and well tolerated in our patients with previously refractory chronic headaches. The mechanism of the analgesic effect of peripheral neurostimulation may be related to activation of large fiber sensory afferents, that in turn inhibit nociceptive fiber activity (15).

In a previous study, Schwedt et al. (4) reported on a mean subjective pain improvement of 52 after occipital nerve stimulator implantation in 15 patients with refractory headaches of various etiologies, however, most patients required lead revision within 1 year. Our efficacy results are comparable to those reported in that study, with a lower complication rate, possibly due to our technique modifications.

5.1. Selecting Scalp Nerve(s) for PNS (Figure 1)

In order to achieve better headache relief, selecting cranial nerves for PNS therapy is important, which is based on the patient’s clinical presentation and headache location. The historical database for PNS therapies suggests that concordant neurostimulation may provide better headache relief than a non-concordant one (15, 19). If the patient presents with one-sided occipital headache, a single 8-electrode lead with regular contact and contact spacing lead is applied to cover all three occipital nerves (greater, lesser, and third ) unilaterally. If the patient presents with headache at the occipital and frontal regions, two 8-electrode leads are used, one for the occipital nerves, and the other for supraorbital and supratrochlear nerves, respectively (Figure 1 top left). If the patient presents with headache at the occipital, frontal and temporal regions, an 8-electrode lead is used for the occipital nerves, one 4-electrode with wide electrode contact spacing lead is used to cover the supraorbital and supratrochlear nerves, and one 4-electrode with small contact spacing lead to the auriculotemporal nerve (Figure 1 top right). Two 4-electrode leads are converted to the 8-contact extension lead; the latter with the other 8-electrode lead is connected to the same implantable pulse generator (IPG). If the patient presents with bilateral occipital headache, two 8-electrode leads are used for both sides of the occipital nerves (Figure 1 bottom left). If the headache is at the occipital and frontal regions bilaterally, based on the clinical presentation, multiple leads are used (Figure 1 bottom right). We found that leads from a unilateral side (occipital and supraorbital) connected to the same IPG provide better pain relief compared with two occipital leads connected to one IPG and the other two supraorbital leads connected to a different IPG. We believe that the frontal and occipital leads from the same IPG can produce a broad paresthesia (cross talk electro-magnetic field) between these two leads, which gives better pain relief. The current 32-contact devices allow the use of 4 independent 8-contact electrodes with a single IPG.

Occipital, supraorbital, supratrochlear and auriculotemporal nerve stimulation (top right). Bilateral occipital nerve stimulation, (bottom left). Bilateral occipital and supraorbital nerve stimulation (bottom right).

Occipital, supraorbital, supratrochlear and auriculotemporal nerve stimulation (top right). Bilateral occipital nerve stimulation, (bottom left). Bilateral occipital and supraorbital nerve stimulation (bottom right).

Figure 1. Stimulation Sites for Chronic Headache: Occipital, Supratrochlear and Supraorbital Cranial Nerve Stimulation (Top Left)

5.2. Surgical Technique of PNS

Common complications of PNS include infection, skin erosion and lead migration (3, 4, 6-8, 14, 16). After encountering these complications in our early cases, we have modified our surgical techniques. In our twenty-one patients treated with modified technique, none developed lead migration, skin erosion and scalp infection.

The followings are the key points of permanent implantation of PNS. The skin need to be appropriately prepared with haircut at least 3 inches from the incision sites, and marked for the incision and needle entrance. When selecting the incision and needle entrance sites, the cosmetic and soft tissue factors (to cover the lead and anchors) should be considered. After the incision is made, minimally invasive hemostasis techniques are used to prevent skin and subcutaneous tissue damaged, because the damage can cause a difficulty to close the incision and result in infection. After exploring the fascia and making a subcutaneous space between scalp and fascia, two 2 - 0 non-absorbable sutures are sutured and tightened to the galea aponeurotica (fascia) as anchors with 0.5 to 0.8 inch apart as a tension releasing loop (Figure 2). A pre-bent introducer is inserted through the incision toward the target nerves. After the introducer reaches the appropriate position, the PNS lead without a stylet is inserted under fluoroscopic guidance. After removal of the introducer, the PNS lead is directly tightened to the galea aponeurotica as an anchor. In order to prevent lead migration, it is very important to tighten the suture with a standard technique. We found that directly tightening the PNS lead will not cause any damage to it (in our group for 9 years of follow-up). It may require multiple tension releasing loops for the PNS leads relaying to the IPG. When tunneling the introducer from the temple to the occipital region, the needle should be away from the superior part of the external ear in order to prevent glasses earpieces irritating the lead or causing skin breakdown. Each layer of scalp tissue should be closed properly. If the tip of the PNS lead is found penetrating the skin or tilted towards the skin, the PNS tip can be buried deeply using a retrograde technique (20). After surgery, the patient should avoid rapid or extreme flexion and extension of the spine for several weeks, to allow fibrosis and firm attachment of the leads to the surrounding tissue.

5.3. Summary

Our results support the use of PNS in some patients with refractory chronic headaches, and add to the existing data on this treatment modality. Selecting the appropriate cranial nerve(s) for PNS therapy is essential to maximize the headache relief. An appropriate and meticulous surgical technique is crucial to prevent procedure-related complications; most commonly lead migration, skin erosion and infections.



  • 1.

    Abejon D, Krames ES. Peripheral nerve stimulation or is it peripheral subcutaneous field stimulation; what is in a moniker? Neuromodulation. 2009; 12(1) : 1 -4 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 2.

    Schoenen J, Allena M, Magis D. Neurostimulation therapy in intractable headaches. Handb Clin Neurol. 2010; 97 : 443 -50 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 3.

    Lee P, Huh BK. Peripheral nerve stimulation for the treatment of primary headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013; 17(3) : 319 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 4.

    Schwedt TJ, Dodick DW, Hentz J, Trentman TL, Zimmerman RS. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic headache--long-term safety and efficacy. Cephalalgia. 2007; 27(2) : 153 -7 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 5.

    Silberstein SD, Dodick DW, Saper J, Huh B, Slavin KV, Sharan A, et al. Safety and efficacy of peripheral nerve stimulation of the occipital nerves for the management of chronic migraine: results from a randomized, multicenter, double-blinded, controlled study. Cephalalgia. 2012; 32(16) : 1165 -79 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 6.

    Serra G, Marchioretto F. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine: a randomized trial. Pain Physician. 2012; 15(3) : 245 -53 [PubMed]

  • 7.

    Saper JR, Dodick DW, Silberstein SD, McCarville S, Sun M, Goadsby PJ, et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of intractable chronic migraine headache: ONSTIM feasibility study. Cephalalgia. 2011; 31(3) : 271 -85 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 8.

    Magis D, Gerardy PY, Remacle JM, Schoenen J. Sustained effectiveness of occipital nerve stimulation in drug-resistant chronic cluster headache. Headache. 2011; 51(8) : 1191 -201 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 9.

    Mammis A, Gudesblatt M, Mogilner AY. Peripheral neurostimulation for the treatment of refractory cluster headache, long-term follow-up: case report. Neuromodulation. 2011; 14(5) : 432 -5 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 10.

    Johnstone CS, Sundaraj R. Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of occipital neuralgia-eight case studies. Neuromodulation. 2006; 9(1) : 41 -7 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 11.

    Weiner RL, Reed KL. Peripheral neurostimulation for control of intractable occipital neuralgia. Neuromodulation. 1999; 2(3) : 217 -21 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 12.

    Rodrigo-Royo MD, Azcona JM, Quero J, Lorente MC, Acin P, Azcona J. Peripheral neurostimulation in the management of cervicogenic headache: four case reports. Neuromodulation. 2005; 8(4) : 241 -8 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 13.

    Amin S, Buvanendran A, Park KS, Kroin JS, Moric M. Peripheral nerve stimulator for the treatment of supraorbital neuralgia: a retrospective case series. Cephalalgia. 2008; 28(4) : 355 -9 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 14.

    Palmisani S, Al-Kaisy A, Arcioni R, Smith T, Negro A, Lambru G, et al. A six year retrospective review of occipital nerve stimulation practice--controversies and challenges of an emerging technique for treating refractory headache syndromes. J Headache Pain. 2013; 14 : 67 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 15.

    Reed KL. Peripheral neuromodulation and headaches: history, clinical approach, and considerations on underlying mechanisms. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2013; 17(1) : 305 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 16.

    Falowski S, Wang D, Sabesan A, Sharan A. Occipital nerve stimulator systems: review of complications and surgical techniques. Neuromodulation. 2010; 13(2) : 121 -5 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 17.

    d'Amato CC, Pizza V, Marmolo T, Giordano E, Alfano V, Nasta A. Fluoxetine for migraine prophylaxis: a double-blind trial. Headache. 1999; 39(10) : 716 -9 [PubMed]

  • 18.

    Zhou L, Lee A, Schaffner R, Dworkin G. Allergic reaction to peripheral nerve stimulator. Open Neurosurg J. 2012; 15 : 12 -5

  • 19.

    Trentman TL, Zimmerman RS, Seth N, Hentz JG, Dodick DW. Stimulation ranges, usage ranges, and paresthesia mapping during occipital nerve stimulation. Neuromodulation. 2008; 11(1) : 56 -61 [DOI][PubMed]

  • 20.

    Craig JJ, Fisicaro MD, Zhou L. Revision of a superficially migrated percutaneous occipital nerve stimulator electrode using a minimally invasive technique. Neuromodulation. 2009; 12(3) : 250 -3 [DOI][PubMed]

  • Copyright © 2016, Iranian Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ISRAPM). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/) which permits copy and redistribute the material just in noncommercial usages, provided the original work is properly cited.