Medical Policy

Subject: Occipital Nerve Stimulation
Document #: SURG.00112 Current Effective Date:    06/28/2017
Status: Reviewed Last Review Date:    05/04/2017


This document addresses occipital nerve stimulation (ONS), which involves delivering small electrical impulses to the occipital nerve.

This therapy is has been proposed for pain management associated with occipital neuralgia, chronic headaches and migraines that are refractory to medical treatments.

Position Statement

Investigational and Not Medically Necessary:

Occipital nerve stimulation is considered investigational and not medically necessary for all indications.


ONS is accomplished via a modified device related to a spinal cord stimulator and is one type of implantable pulse generator (IPG). ONS is used to stimulate the occipital nerve, which is responsible, in part, for carrying signals from cranial pain conditions such as migraines and chronic headaches. Treatment for occipital pain commonly includes the use of medications or anesthetic blocks. While this type of treatment may work in some instances, pain relief may be short lived or not relieved in some individuals. For severe cases of cranial pain conditions, direct treatment of the occipital nerve has been studied.

Miller and colleagues (2016) conducted an uncontrolled, open-label, prospective study exploring the long-term efficacy, functional outcome and safety of ONS in 53 individuals suffering with intractable chronic migraine (CM). A total of 53 subjects receiving care between 2007 and 2013 at a single institution were implanted with an occipital nerve stimulator. The participants ranged from 26-70 years of age and had suffered with CM for approximately12 years and had failed a mean of 9 (range 4-19) treatments prior to implantation. Of the 53 participants, 18 had CM in addition to other chronic headache phenotypes. After a median follow-up of 42 months (range 6-97), the monthly moderate-to-severe headache days (that is those days on which pain was more than 4 on the verbal rating score and lasted at least 4 hours) was reduced by 8.5 days (p<0.001) in the whole cohort, 5.8 days (p<0.01) in those with CM alone and 12.2 days (p<0.001) in those with various headache types including CM. Response rate of the study group, defined as a > 30 % reduction in monthly moderate-to-severe headache days, was observed in 45.3 % of the whole cohort, 34.3 % of those with CM alone and 66.7 % in those with various phenotypes including CM headache types. Significant reductions were also reported in outcome measures such as pain intensity, all monthly headache days, and pain duration. Reported adverse events included one case of infection but no episodes of lead migration.

Dodick and colleagues (2015) reported the 52-week results of their short-term efficacy and safety study of peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS) of the occipital nerves for managing intractable CM. In this multicenter, double-blinded study, 157 participants were initially implanted with a neurostimulation system, randomized 2:1 to an active treatment or sham treatment control group for 12 weeks. After the initial 12-week study period, there was no difference in the percentage of subjects with a 50% reduction in their visual analog score for pain, although pain intensity, headache days and migraine-related disability improved. Participants subsequently received open-label treatment for an additional 40 weeks. A total of 46 (29%) individuals were excluded from the intent-to-treat analysis and 36 (29%) from the intractable CM group, due to loss to follow-up or explantation of the system. At 52 weeks, mean headache days at baseline were 21.6 for the intention-to-treat (ITT) population and 24.2 for a subset of 125 subjects with intractable CM. In the ITT population, headache days decreased by 6.7 days, and by 7.7 (± 8.7) days in the intractable CM population. The percentages of participants who experienced a 30% and 50% reduction in headache days and/or pain intensity were 59.5% and 47.8% respectively. Excellent or good headache relief was reported by 65.4% of the ITT group and 67.9% of the intractable CM group. A total of 68% of the participants were satisfied with the headache relief provided by the neurostimulation system. More than half the subjects in both cohorts were satisfied with the headache relief provided by the device. A total of 183 procedure/device-related adverse events transpired during the study, of which 85 (40.7%) required surgical intervention and 18 (8.6%) required hospitalization; 70% of the participants experienced an adverse event. Some of the participants (18%) experienced persistent pain and/or numbness with the device. The authors concluded that additional research which focuses on the mitigation of adverse events is needed.

Chen and colleagues (2015) conducted a systematic review examining the effectiveness and adverse effects of ONS for CM.  A total of five RCTs (total n=402) and seven case series (total n=115) were included in the systematic review.  Pooled results from three multicenter RCTs demonstrated that, at 3 months, ONS was correlated with a mean reduction of 2.59 days (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.91 to 4.27, I2 =0%) of prolonged, moderate to severe headache per month compared with a sham control.  The authors concluded that though multiple RCTs have demonstrated that ONS is somewhat effective when compared to sham control, the average effect size is modest and may be exaggerated by bias.  The authors acknowledge that further measures to reduce the risk of adverse events and revision surgery are needed.

Serra and Marchioretto (2012) conducted a randomized crossover study to investigate the safety and efficacy of ONS for CM and medication overuse headache (MOH) in individuals and to evaluate changes in disability, quality of life, and drug intake in implanted subjects. The study included 30 participants with chronic migraine (100% of participants) and medication overuse headache (85% of participants) who were implanted with an occipital nerve stimulator (ONS) and randomized to one of two arms: (1) "Stimulation On" or (2) "Stimulation Off". The participants crossed over after 1 month, or when their headaches worsened. The participants were provided with remote controls to modify the stimulation amplitude. Follow-up examinations were conducted at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after stimulator implantation, during which time the stimulation parameters were adjusted. During this 1-year follow-up period, degree of disability (using the Migraine Disability Assessment [MIDAS]), quality of life (using SF-36) and drug intake (using a participant's diary) were assessed. A total of 29 participants completed the study. The intensity and/or frequency of headache were significantly lower in the "On" arm of the study compared to the "Off" arm and decreased from baseline to each follow-up visit in all participants with stimulation on. The degree of disability improved during the study as reflected by the median MIDAS score decreasing from 79 at baseline to 10 at 12-month follow-up. With regard to medication usage, triptans and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug use decreased from the baseline (20 and 25.5 doses/month) at each follow-up visit, to 3 and 2 doses/month at 1 year, P<0.001). A total of five adverse events occurred: two infections (6.7%) and three lead migrations (10%). The authors concluded that ONS appears to be a safe and effective treatment for carefully selected individuals with CM and MOH. The small number of participants is one of the limitations of this study.

Burns and colleagues (2008) studied 14 individuals with medically intractable chronic cluster headaches (CCH). Participants were implanted with bilateral electrodes in the suboccipital region for ONS. Twelve individuals used the stimulation continuously while 2 used it intermittently. A retrospective assessment of their clinical outcome was obtained. At a median follow-up of 17.5 months (range 4-35 months), 10 of 14 participants reported improvement and 9 of these recommend ONS. Three participants noticed a marked improvement of 90% or better (90%, 90%, and 95%), 3 subjects reported a moderate improvement of 40% or better (40%, 50%, and 60%), and 4 subjects reported a mild improvement of 20-30% (20%, 20%, 25%, and 30%). Improvement occurred within days to weeks for those who responded most and participants consistently reported their attacks returned within hours to days when the device was off. One participant found that ONS helped abort acute attacks. Adverse events of concern were lead migrations and battery depletion. The authors concluded that ONS offers a safe, effective option for some individuals with CCH, however more research is required to evaluate safety and efficacy of this therapy.

Schwedt and colleagues (2007) performed a retrospective analysis of 15 individuals with medically refractory headache treated with occipital nerve stimulation. Pre- and post-implant data regarding headache frequency, severity, disability, depression and post stimulator complications were collected. Twelve individuals were female and 3 male. Ages ranged from 21 to 52 years (mean 39 years). Eight individuals had chronic migraine, 3 chronic cluster, 2 hemicrania continua and 2 had post-traumatic headache. Eight individuals underwent bilateral and 7 had unilateral lead placement. Individuals were measured after 5-42 months (mean 19). All six mean headache measures improved significantly from baseline (P<0.03). Headache frequency per 90 days improved by 25 days from a baseline of 89 days; headache severity (0-10) improved 2.4 points from a baseline of 7.1 points; migraine disability assessment (MIDAS) improved 70 points from a baseline of 179 points; Headache Impact Test™ HIT-6 scores improved 11 points from a baseline of 71 points; Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) improved 8 points from a baseline of 20 points; and the mean subjective percent change in pain was 52%. Most individuals (60%) required lead revision within 1 year. One individual required generator revision. Occipital nerve stimulation may be effective in some individuals with intractable headache. The authors determined that further well-designed clinical studies are necessary for individuals with medically refractory headache.

Researchers have also been exploring the use of supraorbital nerve stimulation as a treatment for CM. Supraorbital involves the neurostimulation of both occipital and supraorbital nerves. Reed and colleagues (2010) investigated the use of combined occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation in 7 subjects with CM. The researchers evaluated responses to two stimulation programs: one that stimulated the occipital leads only and one that stimulated both the occipital and supraorbital leads together. Based on a follow-up period ranging from 1 to 35 months, all of the participants reported a full therapeutic response but only to combined supraorbital-occipital neurostimulation.

In 2015, Reed and colleagues reported on the results of a small case series which explored the concordant use of occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation therapy for hemiplegic migraine. A total of 4 participants with hemiplegic migraine were treated with concordant combined supraorbital and occipital neurostimulation over periods ranging from 6-92 months. The researchers assessed headache frequency and severity, frequency of hemiplegic episodes, medication usage, functional impairment, and patient satisfaction. The participants reported the average headache frequency decreased by 92% (from 30 to 2.5 headache days/month). The Visual Analog Score decreased by 44% (from 9.5 to 5.3). The frequency of hemiplegic episodes diminished by 96% (from 7.5 to 0.25 hemiplegic episodes/month). The headache medication usage decreased by 96% (from 6 to 0.25 daily medications) and the Migraine Disability Assessment score was reduced by 98% (from 249 to 6). All of the participants reported preferring combined occipital-supraorbital neurostimulation to occipital neurostimulation alone. The authors concluded that concordant combined occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation may provide effective relief for both the pain and motor aura in some individuals with hemiplegic migraine.

While small, preliminary studies investigating the use of supraorbital neurostimulation as a treatment for CM may show some improvement in pain management, additional well-designed studies with larger populations and longer follow-up periods are needed before conclusions regarding the safety and efficacy of this technique can be made.

At this time, no device has been approved or cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for ONS. Clinical trials evaluating the safety and efficacy of ONS for migraine headaches have been conducted for at least two ONS devices: ONSTIM® (Medtronic Neuro) and PRISM® (Boston Scientific Corporation).


ONS is performed by advancing insulated lead wires through a needle until they are adjacent to the occipital nerve. The leads are then tunneled to a site, usually under the collarbone, and connected to a small implanted pulse generator. It is theorized that ONS interferes with pain transmission to the brain.

Occipital nerve stimulation has been proposed as a treatment of medically intractable headache, because electrical stimulation of large sensory afferents generally has an antinociceptive effect. The electrical stimulus interferes with the neural transmission of the pain sensations back to the brain. Neural electrical stimulation has been used in other modalities for treatment of pain that includes implanted and non-implanted lead wires/devices. The ONS device is implanted and requires surgery for placement of the lead wires that deliver the electrical stimulus and placement of the pulse generator. The therapy is not without difficulties. Lead migration is the most frequent problem, requiring removal and replacement. Power depletion in the pulse generator also needs to be addressed. As with all surgery, the possibility of infection has to be considered.


Afferent: A nerve that carries impulses toward the central nervous system (CNS). The opposite of an afferent nerve is an efferent nerve that carries impulses away from the CNS.

Cluster Headaches: Sudden, intensely painful headaches that occur repeatedly in groups or clusters.

Intractable: Having no relief, such as a symptom or a disease that is not relieved by the therapeutic measures. 

Migraine: A vascular headache believed to be caused by blood flow changes and certain chemical changes in the brain leading to a cascade of events that include constriction of arteries supplying blood to the brain that result in severe head pain, stomach upset, and visual disturbances.

Nociceptive: The ability of specific portions of the nervous system to sense and transmit painful stimuli.


The following codes for treatments and procedures applicable to this document are included below for informational purposes. Inclusion or exclusion of a procedure, diagnosis or device code(s) does not constitute or imply member coverage or provider reimbursement policy. Please refer to the member's contract benefits in effect at the time of service to determine coverage or non-coverage of these services as it applies to an individual member.

When services are Investigational and Not Medically Necessary:
For the following codes when describing an occipital nerve stimulator, or when the code describes a procedure indicated in the Position Statement section as investigational and not medically necessary.

64555 Percutaneous implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; peripheral nerve (excludes sacral nerve) [when specified as occipital nerve stimulator]
64575 Incision for implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; peripheral nerve (excludes sacral nerve) [when specified as occipital nerve stimulator]
64590 Insertion or replacement of peripheral or gastric neurostimulator pulse generator or receiver, direct or inductive coupling [when specified as occipital nerve stimulator]
L8679 Implantable neurostimulator, pulse generator, any type
L8680 Implantable neurostimulator electrode, each
L8685 Implantable neurostimulator pulse generator, single array, rechargeable, includes extension
L8686 Implantable neurostimulator pulse generator, single array, non-rechargeable, includes extension
ICD-10 Procedure  
  For the following codes when specified as an occipital nerve stimulator:
01HY0MZ Insertion of neurostimulator lead into peripheral nerve, open approach
01HY3MZ Insertion of neurostimulator lead into peripheral nerve, percutaneous approach
01HY4MZ Insertion of neurostimulator lead into peripheral nerve, percutaneous endoscopic approach
ICD-10 Diagnosis  
  All diagnoses, including but not limited to, the following:
G43.001-G43.919 Migraine
G44.001-G44.89 Other headache syndromes
M54.81 Occipital neuralgia
R51 Headache

Peer Reviewed Publications:

  1. Burns B, Watkins L, Goadsby P. Treatment of intractable chronic cluster headache by occipital nerve stimulation in 14 patients. Neurology. 2009; 72(4):341-345. 
  2. Burns B, Watkins L, Goadsby PJ. Treatment of medically intractable cluster headache by occipital nerve stimulation: long-term follow-up of eight patients. Lancet. 2007; 369(9567):1099-1106.
  3. Chaiban G, Tolba R, Eissa H, et al. Successful treatment of occipital neuralgia with implantable peripheral nerve stimulation in a pacemaker-dependent patient. Ochsner J. 2014; 14(1):119-122.
  4. Chen YF, Bramley G, Unwin G, et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine--a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015; 10(3):e0116786.
  5. Dodick DW, Silberstein SD, Reed KL, et al. Safety and efficacy of peripheral nerve stimulation of the occipital nerves for the management of chronic migraine: Long-term results from a randomized, multicenter, double-blinded, controlled study. Cephalalgia. 2015; 35(4):344-358.
  6. Hann S, Sharan A. Dual occipital and supraorbital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine: a single-center experience, review of literature, and surgical considerations. Neurosurg Focus. 2013; 35(3):E9.
  7. Johnstone CSH. Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of occipital neuralgia – eight case studies. Neuromodulation. 2006; 9(1):41-47.
  8. Magis D, Allena M, Bolla M, et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for drug-resistant chronic cluster headache: a prospective pilot study. Lancet Neurology. 2007; 6(4):314-321.
  9. Miller S, Watkins L, Matharu M. Long-term outcomes of occipital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine: a cohort of 53 patients. J Headache Pain. 2016; 17(1):68.
  10. Reed KL, Black SB, Banta CJ, 2nd, Will KR. Combined occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation for the treatment of chronic migraine headaches: initial experience. Cephalalgia. 2010; 30(3):260-271.
  11. Reed KL, Will KR, Conidi F, Bulger R. Concordant occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation therapy for hemiplegic migraine; Initial experience; A case series. Neuromodulation. 2015; 18(4):297-303.
  12. Schwedt T. Occipital nerve stimulation for medically intractable headache. Current Pain and Headache Reports. 2008; 12(1):62-66.
  13. Schwedt TJ, Dodick DW, Hentz J, et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic headache – long-term safety and efficacy. Cephalalgia. 2007; 27(2):153-157.
  14. Serra G; Marchioretto F. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine: a randomized trial. Pain Physician 2012; 15(3):245-253.

Government Agency, Medical Society, and Other Authoritative Publications:

  1. Boston Scientific. A prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of cccipital nerve stimulation for drug refractory migraine. NLM Identifier: NCT00747812. Last updated on July 28, 2012. Available at:  Accessed on March 20, 2017.
  2. Medtronic Neuro. ONSTIM: Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of intractable migraine. NLM Identifier:  NCT00200109. Last updated on October 07, 2011. Available at:  Accessed on March 20, 2017.


The use of specific product names is illustrative only.  It is not intended to be a recommendation of one product over another, and is not intended to represent a complete listing of all products available.

Document History




Reviewed 05/04/2017 Medical Policy & Technology Assessment Committee (MPTAC) review. Updated review date, Rationale and References sections.
Reviewed 05/05/2016 MPTAC review. Updated review date, Rationale and References sections. Removed ICD-9 codes from Coding section.
Reviewed 05/07/2015 MPTAC review. Updated review date, Rationale and References sections.
Reviewed 05/15/2014 MPTAC review. Updated review date, Rationale, Coding and References sections.
Reviewed 05/09/2013 MPTAC review. Updated review date, Rationale and References sections.
Reviewed 05/10/2012 MPTAC review. Updated review date, References and History sections.
Reviewed 05/19/2011 MPTAC review. Updated review date, References and History sections.
Reviewed 05/13/2010 MPTAC review. Updated review date, References and History sections.
New 05/21/2009 MPTAC review. Initial document development.