The calvarial periosteum is innervated by nociceptors with extracranial and intracranial axonal trajectories. Activation of these afferents could contribute to primary and secondary headache such as posttraumatic headaches.
Headaches are thought to result from the activation and sensitization of nociceptors that innervate deep cephalic tissues. A large body of evidence supports the view that some types of headaches originate intracranially, from activation of sensory neurons that innervate the cranial meninges. However, the notion of an extracranial origin of headaches continues to be entertained, although the identity of deep extracranial cephalic tissues that might contribute to headaches remains elusive. Here we employed anatomical, electrophysiological, and behavioral approaches in rats to test the hypothesis that the sensory innervation of the calvarial periosteum is nociceptive. Neural tracing indicated that the calvarial periosteum overlying the frontal and parietal bones is innervated primarily by small and medium-sized neurons in the trigeminal ganglion's ophthalmic division. In vivo single-unit recording in the trigeminal ganglion revealed that calvarial periosteal afferents have slowly conducting axons, are mechanosensitive, and respond to inflammatory mediators, consistent with a nociceptive function. Two distinct neuronal populations were distinguished based on their peripheral axonal trajectory: one that reached the periosteum through extracranial branches of the trigeminal nerve, and another that took an intracranial trajectory, innervating the cranial dura and apparently reaching the periosteum via the calvarial sutures. In behavioral studies, inflammatory stimulation of these afferents promoted periorbital tactile hypersensitivity, a sensory change linked to primary headaches. Activation and sensitization of calvarial periosteal afferents could play a role in mediating primary headaches of extracranial and perhaps also intracranial origin, as well as secondary headaches such as postcraniotomy and posttraumatic headaches. Targeting calvarial periosteal afferents may be effective in ameliorating these headaches.