Our nerves serve a vital purpose, alerting us to bodily discomfort, injury or disease — we couldn’t remain in good health for long without them. But when they malfunction due to genetics or disease, they can themselves become a source of pain and discomfort.
One such nerve disorder that affects the face is known as trigeminal neuralgia (TN) or tic douloureaux (from the French for “painful”). The nerves in question are the trigeminal, a pair that travel up from the brain stem through the skull into each side of the face where they each branch into the upper, middle and lower parts of the face and jaw. The pain can radiate from one or more of these branches.
TN is characterized by recurring episodes of brief but severe pain with accompanying muscle spasms. It may begin as a short twinge recurring over weeks, months or years before becoming increasingly painful. The slightest actions can trigger a painful episode: chewing, speaking, shaving or even the wind blowing on your face.
While it may be hard to determine its exact cause, it often seems to result from an artery or vein pressing on the nerve, causing it to signal pain at the slightest stimulation and then failing to stop transmitting when the stimulation is removed. It’s also associated with other inflammatory disorders like multiple sclerosis where the protective insulation around a nerve is damaged.
Before receiving treatment you should undergo a complete examination to rule out any other facial pain causes like temporomandibular (jaw joint) disorders or a dental abscess. You may also need to undergo a neurological examination and possible MRI imaging to pinpoint the exact cause, like a tumor or blood vessel pressing on the nerve.
Although the condition may not be curable, there are several effective management treatments. The more conservative approaches usually involve medications to block the nerve’s pain signals or decrease its abnormal firing. If this isn’t sufficient to diminish symptoms, there are surgical options: passing a thin needle through the nerve to selectively prevent fibers from firing, or moving aside a blood vessel pressing on it. High-dose targeted radiation may also be effective, especially with older patients.
The best treatment approach will depend on the exact cause, your age and overall health. Whatever the approach, you can gain significant relief from the pain of TN.