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Home » What is Trigeminal Neuralgia?

What is TN?

Trigeminal neuralgia (TN), also called tic douloureux, is a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal (fifth cranial) nerve, which carries sensation from your face to your brain. TN is a form of neuropathic pain (pain associated with nerve injury or nerve lesion.) Although sometimes debilitating, the disorder is not life-threatening.

TN is considered to be one of the most painful afflictions known to medical practice. Jolts of pain may be triggered by vibration or mild stimulation of your face such as from brushing your teeth, applying makeup, eating, drinking, talking, or being exposed to the wind. Pain episodes can last from a few seconds to as long as two minutes. These attacks can occur in quick succession or in volleys lasting as long as two hours. The intensity of pain can be physically and mentally incapacitating. TN pain is typically felt on one side of the jaw or cheek. Episodes can last for days, weeks, or months at a time and then disappear for months or years. In the days before an episode begins, some patients may experience a tingling or numbing sensation or a somewhat constant and aching pain. The attacks often worsen over time, with fewer and shorter pain-free periods before they recur. Eventually, the pain-free intervals may disappear and medication to control the pain becomes less effective.

TN diagnosis is based primarily on the person’s history and description of symptoms, along with results from physical and neurological examinations. Because of overlapping symptoms and the large number of conditions that can cause facial pain, obtaining a correct diagnosis is difficult, but finding the cause of the pain is important as the treatments for different types of pain may differ.

Treatments for TN and TN symptoms include medications, surgical options and complimentary and alternative treatments.

TN occurs most often in people over age 50, but it can occur at any age, including infancy. The incidence of newly diagnosed cases of TN in the United States is approximately 4.3 per 100,000 individuals (per year), making TN a rare disease. TN is more common in women than in men. There is some evidence that the disorder runs in families, perhaps because of an inherited pattern of blood vessel formation.

TN may be part of the normal aging process but in some cases it is the associated with another disorder, such as multiple sclerosis or other disorders characterized by damage to the myelin sheath that covers certain nerves.

Common Symptoms of TN:

  • You have brief periods of stabbing or shooting pain that are sudden and intense.
  • The pain is triggered by things such as brushing your teeth, washing your face, shaving, or putting on makeup. Even a light breeze against your face might set off your pain.
  • It lasts a few seconds to several minutes.
  • The attacks happen several times a day or a week, followed by periods during which you have none at all. These pain-free periods are known as remission.
  • The pain usually affects only one side of the face.
  • The attacks happen more often over time, and the pain can worsen.
  • You feel the pain mostly in your cheek, jaw, teeth, gums, and lips. The eyes and forehead are affected less often.

The typical or “classic” form of the disorder (called TN1) causes extreme, sporadic, sudden burning or shock-like facial pain in the areas of the face where the branches of the nerve are distributed – lips, eyes, nose, scalp, forehead, upper jaw, and lower jaw. Trigeminal neuralgia can progress and cause longer, more-frequent bouts of searing pain. You may feel as though your pain came out of nowhere. Some people initially think their pain is a tooth ache or migraine headache.

The “atypical” form of the disorder (called TN2), is characterized by constant aching, burning, stabbing pain of somewhat lower intensity than TN1. Both forms of pain may occur in the same person, sometimes at the same time.

Symptoms of Trigeminal Neuropathic Pain that is not TN:

  • Occurs soon after unintentional injury to the trigeminal system
  • The pain is better described as constant, dull, burning or boring pain with intermittent sharp pain.

Biology of TN

The trigeminal nerve is one of 12 pairs of nerves that are attached to the brain. The nerve has three branches that conduct sensations from the upper, middle, and lower portions of the face, as well as the oral cavity, to the brain. (See Figure 1) More than one nerve branch can be affected by the disorder. Rarely, both sides of the face may be affected at different times in an individual, or even more rarely at the same time (called bilateral TN).

Figure 1: Distribution of the 5th Cranial Nerve: Disorders of the Maxillary and Mandibular Branches Can Present as a Toothache Causing Patients to Seek Dental Treatment.

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What Causes TN?

TN is associated with a variety of conditions. It can be caused by a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve as it exits the brain stem, which prompts the wearing away or damage to the protective coating around the nerve (the myelin sheath).

The intense flashes of pain can be triggered by vibration or contact with the cheek (such as when shaving, washing the face, or applying makeup), brushing teeth, eating, drinking, talking, or being exposed to the wind. People with TN avoid social contact and daily activities such as eating and talking because they fear an attack. Pain from TN is frequently very isolating and depressing for the individual. Depression and sleep disturbance may render individuals more vulnerable to pain and suffering. Thus, there are individual, family, and societal costs of TN.

Diagnosis Issues

TN diagnosis is based primarily on the person’s history and description of symptoms, along with results from physical and neurological examinations. Because of overlapping symptoms and the large number of conditions that can cause facial pain, obtaining a correct diagnosis is difficult, but finding the cause of the pain is important as the treatments for different types of pain may differ. Pharmacological treatment options include anticonvulsant medications used to block nerve firing and tricyclic antidepressants used to treat pain. Common analgesics and opioids are not usually helpful in treating the pain. The condition is progressive. The attacks often worsen over time, with fewer and shorter pain-free periods before they recur. Eventually, the pain-free intervals disappear and medication to control the pain becomes less effective. Patients opt to have surgery which may or may not be effective. Pain free periods after surgery vary. Sometimes surgery exacerbates the pain.

Who is Affected?

TN occurs most often in people over age 50, although it can occur at any age, including infancy. The incidence of newly diagnosed cases of TN in the United States population averages approximately 4.3 per 100,000 individuals (per year) and the average for women is slightly higher than for men. If people have TN for an average of 8 years, then a rough estimate of prevalence in United States is 108,000. The definition of a rare disease in the United States is one that affects fewer than 200,000 at any one time. Thus, TN is a rare disease.

More information on Trigeminal Neuralgia and related facial pain diseases is available in our FPA Guide. Contact FPA at info@tna-support.org or call 1-800-923-3608.

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