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MP 7.01.125

Occipital Nerve Stimulation

Medical Policy    
Original Policy Date
Last Review Status/Date
Reviewed with literature search/11:2012
  Return to Medical Policy Index


Our medical policies are designed for informational purposes only and are not an authorization, or an explanation of benefits, or a contract.  Receipt of benefits is subject to satisfaction of all terms and conditions of the coverage.  Medical technology is constantly changing, and we reserve the right to review and update our policies periodically. 


Occipital nerve stimulation (ONS) delivers a small electrical charge to the occipital nerve in an attempt to prevent migraines and other headaches in patients who have not responded to medications. The device consists of a subcutaneously implanted pulse generator (in the chest wall or abdomen) attached to extension leads that are tunneled to join electrodes placed across one or both occipital nerves at the base of the skull. Continuous or intermittent stimulation may be used.

Implanted peripheral nerve stimulators have been used for treatment of refractory pain for many years but have only recently been proposed for management of craniofacial pain. Occipital, supraorbital, and infraorbital stimulation have been reported in the literature.

There are 4 types of headache: vascular, muscle contraction (tension), traction, and inflammatory.

Primary (not the result of another condition) chronic headache is defined as headache occurring more than 15 days of the month for at least 3 months. An estimated 45 million Americans experience chronic headaches. For at least half of these people, the problem is severe and sometimes disabling.

Migraine is the most common type of vascular headache. Migraine headaches are usually characterized by severe pain on one or both sides of the head, an upset stomach, and, at times, disturbed vision. One- year prevalence of migraine ranges from 6–15% in adult men and from 14–35% in adult women. Migraine headaches may last a day or more and can strike as often as several times a week or as rarely as once every few years. Drug therapy for migraine is often combined with biofeedback and relaxation training. Sumatriptan is commonly used for relief of symptoms. Drugs used to prevent migraine include methysergide maleate, propranolol hydrochloride, ergotamine tartrate; amitriptyline, valproic acid, and verapamil.

Hemicrania continua, also a vascular headache, causes moderate pain with occasional severe pain on only one side of the head. At least one of the following symptoms must also occur; conjunctival injection and/or lacrimation, nasal congestion and/or rhinorrhea, or ptosis and/or miosis. Headache occurs daily and is continuous with no pain-free periods. Hemicrania continua occurs mainly in woman, and its true prevalence is not known. Indomethacin usually provides rapid relief of symptoms. Other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen, celecoxib, and naproxen, can provide some relief from symptoms. Amitriptyline and other tricyclic antidepressants are effective in some patients.

Cluster headache is a vascular headache that occurs in cyclical patterns or clusters of severe or very severe unilateral orbital or supraorbital and/or temporal pain. The headache is accompanied by at least one of the following autonomic symptoms: ptosis (drooping eyelid), conjunctival injection, lacrimation, rhinorrhea, and, less commonly, facial blushing, swelling, or sweating. Bouts of one headache every other day to 8 attacks per day may last from weeks to months, usually followed by remission periods when the headache attacks stop completely. The pattern varies from one person to another, but most people have one or two cluster periods a year. During remission, no headaches occur for months, and sometimes even years. The intense pain is caused by the dilation of blood vessels, which creates pressure on the trigeminal nerve. While this process is the immediate cause of the pain, the etiology is not fully understood. It is more common in men than in woman. One-year prevalence is estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0/1,000. Management of cluster headache consists of abortive and preventive treatment. Abortive treatments include subcutaneous injection of sumatriptan, topical anesthetics sprayed into the nasal cavity, and strong coffee. Some patients respond to rapidly inhaled pure oxygen. A variety of other pharmacologic and behavioral methods of aborting and preventing attacks have been reported with wide variation in patient response.

As of October 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not cleared any occipital nerve stimulation (ONS) device for treatment of headache. The Synergy™ IPG (implantable pulse generator) device from Medtronic received marketing clearance in 1999 for management of chronic, intractable pain of the trunk or limbs, and off-label use for headache is described in the literature. The Genesis™ neuromodulation system (St. Jude Medical) is approved by the FDA for spinal cord stimulation and has received CE mark approval in Europe for the treatment of chronic migraines. Medtronic and Boston Scientific Neuromodulation Systems are currently conducting clinical trials of devices.


Occipital nerve stimulation is considered investigational for all indications. 

Policy Guidelines

There is no specific CPT code for occipital nerve stimulation. The following CPT codes may be used:

61885 Insertion or replacement of cranial neurostimulator pulse generator or receiver, direct or inductive coupling; with connection to a single electrode array
61886 with connection to 2 or more electrode arrays
64553 Percutaneous implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; cranial nerve
64555 peripheral nerve (excludes sacral nerve)
64573 Incision for implantation of neurostimulator electrodes; cranial nerve
64575 peripheral nerve (excludes sacral nerve)
64999 Unlisted procedure, nervous system

Benefit Application

BlueCard/National Account Issues

State or federal mandates (e.g., FEP) may dictate that all FDA-approved devices, drugs or biologics may not be considered investigational and thus these devices may be assessed only on the basis of their medical necessity. 

Controlled Trials


A report of the Occipital Nerve Stimulation for the Treatment of Intractable Chronic Migraine Headache (ONSTIM) trial, a multicenter, randomized feasibility study of occipital nerve stimulation (ONS) for treatment of intractable chronic migraine headache, was published in 2011. (1) The trial was designed to evaluate the study design and not powered for a single primary endpoint. One hundred ten patients were enrolled, and patients who had a positive response to a short-acting occipital nerve block were randomized as follows: 33 to adjustable stimulation (AS), 17 to preset stimulation (PS) of 1 minute per day, and 17 to medical management (MM). Patients in the PS group did not have a controller. A fourth, ancillary, group of 8 patients received adjustable stimulators but did not have preoperative nerve blocks to test whether positive response to nerve block predicted response to stimulation. Patients in the AS, PS, and ancillary groups were required to keep medication regimens stable but were allowed to adjust the frequency and dose of acute medications. Patients in the MM group were allowed to change medications and dosage as directed by their physicians. At the end of the 3-month trial, 28 patients remained in the AS group, 16 in the PS group and 17 in the MM group. A number of outcome measures were used including responder rate (percentage of patients who achieve 50% or greater reduction in number of headache days per month or a 3-point or greater reduction in average overall pain intensity compared to baseline). At the 3-month evaluation, the responder rate was 39% in the AS group, 6% in the PS group, and 0% in the MM group. Lead migration occurred in 12 of 51 (24%) of subjects. Three subjects required hospitalization for adverse events (infection, lead migration, and nausea). The authors concluded that further study is warranted, noting that the 39% responder rate is comparable to response rates achieved by preventive chronic migraine treatments. Limitations of the study cited by the authors are short observation period and the inability to effectively blind subjects and investigators to treatment group.

Serra and Marchioretto conducted a crossover study in which 30 patients with chronic migraine (100% of patients) and medication overuse headache (85% of patients) were implanted with an occipital nerve stimulator (ONS) and randomized to “Stimulation On” or “Stimulation Off” arms. (2) After one month, or if headaches worsened during the off period, patients were crossed over to the other arm. The mean number of days when patients randomized to the off condition turned on the generators was 4.65 days (range, 1-12 days). Follow-up examinations were conducted at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after nerve stimulator implantation, during which time the stimulation parameters were adjusted in order to optimize the perception of paresthesia. In addition, the patients were provided with remote controls to modify the stimulation amplitude. At baseline, the average frequency of migraines was 5.8 days per week and the median headache severity was 8 on an 11-point numerical rating scale. Headache intensity and/or frequency were significantly lower in the on arm compared to the off arm and decreased from baseline to each follow-up visit in all patients with Stimulation On. For example, the number of headaches decreased from a median of 6.3 days per week in the off phase to 2.1 days per week in the on phase. The median Migraine Disability Assessment (MIDAS) score decreased from 79 at baseline to 10 at 12-month follow-up. Quality of life measured by the SF-36 significantly improved from baseline throughout the follow-up period. Use of triptans decreased from a median of 20 to 3 doses/month and use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) use decreased from a median of 25.5 to 2 doses/month. There were 2 infections (6.7%) and 3 lead migrations (10%) during the study. This study is limited by the lack of a control group during follow-up and lack of blinding, although blinding of patients may be difficult due to paresthesia with this treatment.

Hemicrania Continua

Six patients with hemicrania continua received continuous unilateral ONS in a crossover study by Burns and colleagues in 2008. (3) Pain on a 10-point scale was recorded hourly in patient diaries, and the Migraine Disability Assessment Scale (MIDAS) was administered at each follow-up visit. Four of 6 patients reported substantial improvement (80–95%), 1 reported a 30% improvement, and 1 reported that pain was worse by 20%. Adverse events were mild and associated with transient overstimulation.

Observational Studies

Aside from the single randomized feasibility study and small crossover study discussed above, evidence on ONS for treatment of headache is limited to small case series.

For example, in 2007, Schwedt and colleagues published a retrospective analysis of pre- and post-implant data from 15 patients with chronic, intractable headache implanted with the Synergy implantable pulse generator. (4) Eight patients had chronic migraine, 3 chronic cluster, 2 hemicrania continua, and 2 post-traumatic headache. Eight patients had bilateral and 7 had unilateral lead placement. Data were collected on headache frequency, severity, disability, depression, and post-stimulator complications. Nine patients reported at least a 50% reduction in headache pain, and none reported worsening of pain. The mean subjective percent change in pain was 52%. Sixty percent of patients required lead revision within 1 year. The authors concluded that ONS may be effective in some patients with intractable headache.

In a separate report, the same authors describe a retrospective review of the patients in the study reported above to determine if response to occipital nerve block (ONB) predicts response to ONS. (5) Thirteen patients in the study had ONB; 10 of them were responders (50% or more reduction in frequency or severity). Ten of 13 who had ONB had significant relief of pain lasting at least 24 hours, and 3 were ONB nonresponders. Of the 3 ONB nonresponders, 2 were ONS responders. Of the 2 patients who did not have ONB prior to ONS, 1 was an ONS responder and 1 was an ONS nonresponder. The authors conclude that ONB may not be predictive of the therapeutic effect of ONS.

In 2009 Trentman et al. reported outcome measures at 1 year post-implant in 9 patients who participated in a feasibility trial of the Bion microstimulator. (6) One patient stopped using the device before 1 year because of the time required to recharge the device. At 1 year, 7 of the 8 remaining patients had fair or better results in terms of reduction of disability, with 5 having greater than 90% reduction in disability.

Cluster Headache

Burns et al. reported on 14 patients with cluster headache in 2009. (7) At a median follow-up of 17.5 months (range, 4–35 months), 10 of 14 patients reported improvement. Three reported improvement of 90% or better, 3 reported moderate improvement (30–60%), and 4 reported mild improvement (20–30%). Four patients required new electrode leads. A wide range of stimulation was used. Six patients required battery replacement.

In 2011, Mueller et al. reported a prospective study of 10 patients with refractory chronic cluster headache who had been treated with bilateral ONS. (8) Data were collected on the frequency, intensity, and duration of attacks and quality of life with the Short Form-36 (SF-36). Patients were seen at 1 and 3 months and then every 3 months afterwards. At a mean follow-up of 12 months (range, 3-18 months), the frequency of the attacks were reduced by a mean of 44% (range 20-90%) in 90% of the patients. The daily frequency of the attacks dropped from a mean of 6 to 3. Seventy percent of the patients required less medication during attacks. There was a non-significant tendency for improvement on the SF-36 in this small study. The investigators are currently conducting an observational trial to identify the best stimulation parameters.

Another publication from 2011 reported mean 37-month follow-up (range, 11-64 months) on 15 patients with intractable chronic cluster headache. (9) The mean duration of cluster headache was 7 years, with a mean 2.5 attacks per day. One patient had an immediate post-operative infection and was explanted. For the remaining 14 patients, the mean attack frequency decreased from 2.24 to 0.12 per day. Twelve patients reported total or partial relief and 2 had no or minimal improvement. Two patients found the ONS-related paresthesisas to be unbearable. In some patients contralateral attacks occurred. Technical problems included battery depletion (64%) and infection (20%). Five patients (33%) had the stimulators removed due to discomfort or infection, and 9 patients (60%) were reported to be pain-free for extended periods.

Headache Associated with Chiari Malformation

Vadivelu et al. reported on a series of 22 patients with Chiari malformation and persistent occipital headaches. (10) Of the 22, 15 (68%) had a successful occipital neurostimulator trial and underwent permanent implantation. At a mean follow-up of 18.9 months (range, 6-51 months), 13 of the 15 patients (87%) reported pain relief of greater than 50%. Device-related complications requiring additional surgeries (lead migration, uncomfortable position of generator, wound infection) occurred in 40% of patients during the follow-up period.

Combined Occipital and Supraorbital Stimulation

Combined occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation was evaluated in 7 patients with chronic migraine by Reed and colleagues. (11) Responses to 2 stimulation programs were evaluated: one that stimulated only the occipital leads and one that stimulated both the occipital and supraorbital leads together. With follow-up ranging from 1–35 months, all patients reported a full therapeutic response but only to combined supraorbital-occipital neurostimulation.

Ongoing Clinical Trials

A search of online site in October 2012 identified a number of clinical trials that are currently underway. Of particular note are the following:

  • NCT01151631 is a randomized double-blind multi-center trial sponsored by Leiden University Medical Center that will compare low (30%) and high (100%) stimulation parameters in patients with medically intractable chronic cluster headache. Enrollment of 144 patients is anticipated with an expected completion date in 2014.
  • Recruitment (n=179) has been completed for an industry-sponsored Phase III trial from Boston Scientific (NCT00286078). The estimated study completion date is January 2015.
  • Occipital nerve stimulation is also being studied for the treatment of fibromyalgia (NCT01298609).


The literature to date consists primarily of small case series, with only one randomized feasibility study and two small crossover studies identified. Randomized controlled trials (to account for potential placebo effect) with greater numbers of patients and longer follow-up are needed. The available evidence is insufficient to permit conclusions concerning the impact of ONS on net health outcome. In addition, no implanted occipital nerve stimulators have received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Therefore, ONS is considered investigational.

Medicare National Coverage

There is no national coverage determination.



  1. Saper JR, Dodick DW, Silberstein SD et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of intractable chronic migraine headache: ONSTIM feasibility study. Cephalalgia 2011; 31(3):271-85.
  2. Serra G, Marchioretto F. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic migraine: a randomized trial. Pain Physician 2012; 15(3):245-53.
  3. Burns B, Watkins L, Goadsby PJ. Treatment of hemicrania continua by occipital nerve stimulation with a bion device: long-term follow-up of a crossover study. Lancet Neurol 2008; 7(11):1001-12.
  4. Schwedt TJ, Dodick DW, Hentz J et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for chronic headache--long-term safety and efficacy. Cephalalgia 2007; 27(2):153-7.
  5. Schwedt TJ, Dodick DW, Trentman TL et al. Response to occipital nerve block is not useful in predicting efficacy of occipital nerve stimulation. Cephalalgia 2007; 27(3):271-4.
  6. Trentman TL, Rosenfeld DM, Vargas BB et al. Greater occipital nerve stimulation via the Bion microstimulator: implantation technique and stimulation parameters. Clinical trial: NCT00205894. Pain Physician 2009; 12(3):621-8.
  7. Burns B, Watkins L, Goadsby PJ. Treatment of intractable chronic cluster headache by occipital nerve stimulation in 14 patients. Neurology 2009; 72(4):341-5.
  8. Mueller OM, Gaul C, Katsarava Z et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for the treatment of chronic cluster headache - lessons learned from 18 months experience. Cen Eur Neurosurg 2011; 72(2):84-9.
  9. Magis D, Gerardy PY, Remacle JM et al. Sustained effectiveness of occipital nerve stimulation in drug-resistant chronic cluster headache. Headache 2011; 51(8):1191-201.
  10. Vadivelu S, Bolognese P, Milhorat TH et al. Occipital nerve stimulation for refractory headache in the Chiari malformation population. Neurosurgery 2012; 70(6):1430-6; discussion 36-7.
  11. Reed KL, Black SB, Banta CJ, 2nd et al. Combined occipital and supraorbital neurostimulation for the treatment of chronic migraine headaches: initial experience. Cephalalgia 2010; 30(3):260-71.




CPT   See Policy Guidelines 
ICD-9 Diagnosis    Investigational for all diagnoses
HCPCS  L8680 Implantable neurostimulator electrode, each
  L8681, L8682, L8683, L8684, L8685, L8686, L8687, L8688, L8689 Implantable neurostimulator programmer and pulse generator code range
ICD-10-CM (effective 10/1/14)    Investigational for all diagnoses
   G43.00-G43.919 Migraine code range
   G44.00-G44.89 Other headache syndromes code range
ICD-10-PCS (effective 10/1/14)    ICD-10-PCS codes are only used for inpatient services. There is no specific ICD-10-PCS code for the initiation of this therapy.
  00HE0MZ, 00HE3MZ, 00HE4MZ Surgical, central nervous system, insertion, cranial nerve, neurostimulator lead, code by approach
   00PE0MZ, 00PE3MZ, 00PE4MZ Surgical, central nervous system, removal, cranial nerve, neurostimulator lead, code by approach
   0JH60M6, 0JH60M7, 0JH60M8, 0JH60M9, 0JH63M6, 0JH63M7,
0JH63M8, 0JH63M9, 0JH80M6, 0JH80M7, 0JH80M8, 0JH80M9, 0JH83M6, 0JH83M7, 0JH83M8, 0JH83M9
Surgical, subcutaneous tissue and fascia, insertion, stimulator generator, code by body part (chest or abdomen), approach, number of arrays and whether rechargeable or not
   0JPT0MZ, 0JPT3MZ Surgical, subcutaneous tissue and fascia, removal, subcutaneous tissue and fascia, trunk, stimulator generator, code by approach


Occipital neurostimulation 

Policy History

Date Action Reason
02/11/2010 Add policy to Surgery section New policy
2/10/11 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search, reference 6 updated, reference 7 added; policy statement unchanged. CPT coding updated in Policy Guidelines.
11/10/11 Replace policy Policy updated with literature search through August 2011; references 7 and 8 added and references reordered; policy statement unchanged
11/08/12 Replace Policy Policy updated with literature search through August 2012; references 2 and 10 added and references reordered; policy statement unchanged