Regional cerebral blood flow as predictor of response to occipital nerve block in cluster headache

Sonia Medina*, Norazah Abu Bakar, Owen O’Daly, Sarah Miller, Elena Makovac, Tara Renton, Steve C.R. Williams, Manjit Matharu, Matthew A. Howard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Cluster headache is an excruciating disorder with no cure. Greater occipital nerve blockades can transiently suppress attacks in approximately 50% of patients, however, its mechanism of action remains uncertain, and there are no reliable predictors of treatment response. To address this, we investigated the effect of occipital nerve blockade on regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF), an index of brain activity, and differences between treatment responders and non-responders. Finally, we compared baseline perfusion maps from patients to a matched group of healthy controls. Methods: 21 male, treatment-naive patients were recruited while in a cluster headache bout. During a pain-free phase between headaches, patients underwent pseudo-continuous arterial spin labelled MRI assessments to provide quantitative indices of rCBF. MRIs were performed prior to and 7-to-21 days following treatment. Patients also recorded the frequency of their headache attacks in a daily paper diary. Neuropsychological assessment including anxiety, depression and quality of life measures was performed in a first, scanning free session for each patient. Results: Following treatment, patients demonstrated relative rCBF reductions in posterior temporal gyrus, cerebellum and caudate, and rCBF increases in occipital cortex. Responders demonstrated relative rCBF increases, compared to non-responders, in medial prefrontal cortex and lateral occipital cortex at baseline, but relative reductions in cingulate and middle temporal cortices. rCBF was increased in patients compared to healthy controls in cerebellum and hippocampus, but reduced in orbitofrontal cortex, insula and middle temporal gyrus. Conclusions: We provide new mechanistic insights regarding the aetiology of cluster headache, the mechanisms of action of occipital nerve blockades and potential predictors of treatment response. Future investigation should determine whether observed effects are reproducible and extend to other headache disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article number91
JournalJournal of Headache and Pain
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021


  • Arterial spin Labelling
  • Cluster headache
  • Greater occipital nerve block
  • Regional cerebral blood flow
  • Trigeminal cephalgia


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