JUL 27, 2022 7:02 AM PDT

What is Trigeminal Neuralgia?

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Trigeminal neuralgia is an extremely painful disorder that usually impacts the lower face and jaw, but may also involve areas around the nose or eyes. The condition has also been called tic douloureux, which translates to "painful tic." People who suffer from the disorder have compared the feeling to a stabbing pain that can be like an electric shock. These sensations happen when there is inflammation in the trigeminal nerve, which starts around the top of the ear and then splits into branches that extend on either side of the face to the cheeks and jaw. Routine tasks like brushing teeth, chewing, drinking, or even feeling a breeze can cause excruciating pain when the trigeminal nerve is inflamed.

Image credit: Pixabay

"And when [the trigeminal nerve] misfires or it doesn't function right, it gives intense shocks of pain, and the pain can be described as the worst pain ever," noted Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Zimmerman.

For some people, these feelings may arise spontaneously. In other cases, they have been associated with dental work, or more rarely, with a tumor. One form of trigeminal neuralgia has been associated with multiple sclerosis. While nerve inflammation causes the pain, researchers are still learning about why the trigeminal nerve can become inflamed. One common reason is when a healthy blood vessel contacts the nerve. It may also be caused by the pressure from a growing tumor, which can be detected with an MRI.

Its estimated that every year, about 150,000 people are diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia. It's twice as common in women than men, and tends to strike people over age 50.

There are no tests for trigeminal neuralgia, and it can be difficult to diagnose. It may also be confused with other disorders including earaches, sinus issues, tooth pain, or trigeminal neuropathic pain, which happens after the nerve itself is damaged. This condition tends to be characterized by constant, dull pain.

Patients with trigeminal neuralgia have some treatment options. Anti-convulsant medications are usually prescribed first. If the condition goes on for a time without treatment or it worsens, it can also be corrected with surgery.

"This is a situation that's fixable with an operation. The surgery to correct trigeminal neuralgia in most cases is a very simple procedure. And the results are so positive, and the patients are so emphatically pleased with the results when their pain goes away," added Dr. Zimmerman.

Sources: American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Mayo Clinic

About the Author
BS
Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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