The trigeminal nerve is one of the largest cranio-facial nerves in the human body. Also known as cranial nerve number 5, the trigeminal runs down through our temple to expand outward over our cheek and jawbones and over and under our teeth. It is responsible for facial sensation as well as assisting in certain motor activities such as speaking, smiling or empathizing with conversational partners. People who suffer from trigeminal neuralgia may experience occasional or constant nerve pain that might manifest as burning, shocking or stabbing pains. This pain and discomfort may be caused by physical damage or insult to the trigeminal nerve, as is the case when a tumor or swollen blood vessel presses against the nerve, or from aging nerve stress or even underlying psychological causes that are not yet fully understood. There are currently many different treatments available to help patients cope with the sensitivity and pain of trigeminal neuralgia and they range from simple physical therapy and medication to expensive invasive surgeries and radiation therapies.
Trigeminal Nerve Pain Symptoms
Trigeminal neuralgia can present vastly different symptoms in two different patients; some people experience a constant weakness and sensitivity in their cheeks, making even a light breeze or loud music seem harsh and chafing. Still others do not experience generalized sensitivity but do receive occasional shocks of agony down through their cheeks and teeth. This can make normal activities like teeth brushing and shaving difficult if not impossible during flare-ups of the disorder.
Some doctors and medical researches have speculated that nerve pain related to the trigeminal may be a natural side-effect of aging, because the great majority of patients that suffer from this condition are over the age of 40. However it is definitely possible for younger people to be diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia.
Basic Trigeminal Neuralgia Treatments
Should a patient's facial nerve pain be mild or infrequent, doctors may prescribe a physical therapy regimen that might include facial massage and a light prescription of anti-inflammatory medicines intended to reduce the pressue caused by tight or swollen muscles around this cranio-facial nerve. In the case of more frequent flare-ups, anti-depressants or pain-killers may be prescribed either for intermittent use or as a preventative measure against episodes.
Intermediate Facial Neuralgia Treatments
Sometimes trigeminal neuralgia symptoms will not yield to basic treatments. For patients that suffer painful episodes several times per week, doctors may prescribe a more aggressive course of treatment that could include regular pain-killers in addition to pharmaceutical muscle relaxants such as clonazepam or barbituates. The increased power of these prescription-only muscle relaxants is sometimes sufficient to forcibly relax irritated muscles around the nerve to reduce the frequency of painful episodes and shooting sensations.
Severe Trigeminal Neuralgia Treatments and Surgeries
In the case of truly severe facial pain that becomes intractable, surgery may be indicated. There are two main kinds of surgery related to the treatment of facial pain caused by the trigeminal nerve. The first is invasive surgery meant to remove part of the trigeminal nerve in the hopes that this will reduce the frequency and severity of face pain, if not eliminate it all together.
The second kind of advanced surgery is known as stereotactic radiosurgery. Also known as the laser knife or x-ray scalpel, this treatment focuses high concentrations of x-rays into extremely small target areas within the body. When applied to tumors, which sometimes press upon the trigeminal nerve and cause pain, stereotactic radiosurgery can slow their growth and reduce their ability to push on nearby nerves. This treatment involves the use of a large x-ray generating machine and can require the patient to wear a special facemask while laying inside of the machine. Treatment sessions usually last 30 minutes to an hour.