Occipital neuralgia can be a debilitating disease and may occur following operative procedures near the occipital and nuchal regions. One nerve of this region, the third occipital nerve (TON), has received only scant attention, and its potential contribution to occipital neuralgia has not been appreciated. Therefore, in the present study the authors aimed to detail the anatomy of this nerve and its relationships to midline surgical approaches of the occiput and posterior neck.
Fifteen adult cadavers (30 sides) underwent dissection of the upper cervical and occipital regions. Special attention was given to identifying the course of the TON and its relationship to the soft tissues and other nerves of this region. Once identified superficially, the TON was followed deeply through the nuchal musculature to its origin in the dorsal ramus of C-3. Measurements were made of the length and diameter of the TON. Additionally, the distance from the external occipital protuberance was measured in each specimen. Following dissection of the TON, self-retaining retractors were placed in the midline and opened in standard fashion while observing for excess tension on the TON.
Articular branches were noted arising from the deep surface of the nerve in 63.3% of sides. The authors found that the TON was, on average, 3 mm lateral to the external occipital protuberance, and small branches were found to cross the midline and communicate with the contralateral TON inferior to the external occipital protuberance in 66.7% of sides. The TON trunk became subcutaneous at a mean of 5 cm inferior to the external occipital protuberance. In all specimens, the cutaneous main trunk of the TON was intimately related to the nuchal ligament. Insertion of self-retaining retractors in the midline placed significant tension on the TON in all specimens, both superficially and more deeply at its adjacent facet joint.
Although damage to the TON may often be unavoidable in midline approaches to the craniocervical region, appreciation of its presence and knowledge of its position and relationships may be useful to the neurosurgeon who operates in this region and may assist in decreasing postoperative morbidity.