Trigeminal neuralgia is sudden, severe facial pain. It’s often described as a sharp shooting pain or like having an electric shock in the jaw, teeth or gums.
It usually occurs in short, unpredictable attacks that can last from a few seconds to about two minutes. The attacks stop as suddenly as they start.
In most cases trigeminal neuralgia affects part or all of one side of the face, with the pain usually felt in the lower part of the face. Very occasionally it can affect both sides of the face, although not usually at the same time.
When to seek medical advice
Your GP will try to identify the problem by asking about your symptoms and ruling out conditions that could be responsible for your pain.
However, diagnosing trigeminal neuralgia can be difficult and it can take a few years for a diagnosis to be confirmed.
Read more about diagnosing trigeminal neuralgia.
What causes trigeminal neuralgia?
Trigeminal neuralgia is usually caused by compression of the trigeminal nerve. This is the nerve inside the skull that transmits sensations of pain and touch from your face, teeth and mouth to your brain.
The compression of the trigeminal nerve is usually caused by a nearby blood vessel pressing on part of the nerve inside the skull.
In rare cases trigeminal neuralgia can be caused by damage to the trigeminal nerve as a result of an underlying condition, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or a tumour.
Typically the attacks of pain are brought on by activities that involve lightly touching the face, such as washing, eating and brushing the teeth, but they can also be triggered by wind – even a slight breeze or air conditioning – or movement of the face or head. Sometimes the pain can occur without any trigger at all.
Read more about the causes of trigeminal neuralgia.
It’s not clear how many people are affected by trigeminal neuralgia, but it’s thought to be rare, with around 10 people in 100,000 in the UK developing it each year.
Women tend to be affected by trigeminal neuralgia more than men, and it usually starts between the ages of 50 and 60. It’s rare in adults younger than 40.
Treating trigeminal neuralgia
Trigeminal neuralgia is usually a long-term condition, and the periods of remission often get shorter over time. However, most cases can be controlled with treatment to at least some degree.
An anticonvulsant medication called carbamazepine, which is often used to treat epilepsy, is the first treatment usually recommended to treat trigeminal neuralgia.
Carbamazepine needs to be taken several times a day to be effective, with the dose gradually increased over the course of a few days or weeks so high enough levels of the medication can build up in your bloodstream.
Unless your pain starts to diminish or disappears altogether, the medication is usually continued for as long as necessary, sometimes for many years.
If you’re entering a period of remission and your pain goes away, stopping the medication should always be done slowly over days or weeks, unless you’re advised otherwise by a doctor.
Carbamazepine wasn’t originally designed to treat pain, but it can help relieve nerve pain by slowing down electrical impulses in the nerves and reducing their ability to transmit pain messages.
If this medication is ineffective, unsuitable or causes too many side effects, you may be referred to a specialist to discuss alternative medications or surgical procedures that may help.
There are a number of minor surgical procedures that can be used to treat trigeminal neuralgia – usually by damaging the nerve to stop it sending pain signals – but these are generally only effective for a few years.
Alternatively, your specialist may recommend having surgery to open up your skull and move away any blood vessels compressing the trigeminal nerve.
Research suggests this operation offers the best results in terms of long-term pain relief, but it’s a major operation and carries a risk of potentially serious complications, such as hearing loss, facial numbness or, very rarely, a stroke.
Read more about treating trigeminal neuralgia.