What is Trigeminal Neuralgia?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Trigeminal neuralgia is a form of neuralgia or nerve pain which involves the trigeminal nerve, one of the nerves of the face. People who suffer from this condition experience excruciating pain on one side of their faces in response to a wide variety of activities, including talking, brushing teeth, or applying makeup. This condition is rare, and occurs most commonly in people over the age of 50, particularly women. Despite the fact that it is most common in older people, it can and does occur in people of younger age, although these patients may experience barriers in treatment as doctors may be reluctant to diagnose trigeminal neuralgia in people who are young.

Continuous jaw pain may be a sign of trigeminal neuralgia.
Continuous jaw pain may be a sign of trigeminal neuralgia.

The trigeminal nerve, also known as the fifth cranial nerve, covers a large area of the face, with three branches extending across the eye, jaw, and cheek. The cause of trigeminal neuralgia is not really understood. In some cases, the condition can be linked to nerve damage or compression of the nerve, but in other instances, the origins of the pain may be unclear.

This condition is also known as Fothergill syndrome, proeopalgia, or tic douloureux, French for “painful tic.” The pain associated with episodes of trigeminal neuralgia is so excruciating that sufferers are usually stopped in their tracks until the pain resolves. It can feel like stabbing or burning, and it can last for a few seconds or much longer. Once the pain starts occurring, it will often keep recurring, which can be very frustrating for the patient.

Sometimes, trigeminal neuralgia is erroneously attributed to dental problems. Patients may repeatedly visit the dentist complaining of jaw pain, and the dentist may find no obvious cause. In some cases, extractions may be performed to address the patient's complaints, but the issue does not resolve. A dentist who is familiar with trigeminal neuralgia may refer the patient to a neurologist for treatment eventually, or the patient's regular doctor may make a referral when the patient brings the situation up.

There are some treatments for trigeminal neuralgia. Sometimes, medications can be used to manage the nerve pain and keep the patient comfortable. Surgery can also be utilized to address the problem, sometimes simply by cutting off signals from the nerve. Surgery carries significant risks, as there are many nerves on and around the face, and if the wrong nerve is severed, the patient may develop paralysis in that area of the face. Some patients have also experienced success with radiation therapy.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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