Trigeminal Neuralgia: Symptoms, Treatment, and Diagnosis

Trigeminal neuralgia is a nerve disorder that causes sudden and intense bouts of facial pain. People suffering from trigeminal neuralgia may experience sharp sensations along the side of their face, which can be triggered by everyday activities, like brushing their teeth or applying makeup.

The trigeminal nerve carries feeling from your face to your brain. When the nerve is disrupted, often because a blood vessel is pressing against it, the nerve can malfunction and send stinging, shock-like pain along the side of the face.

How Trigeminal Neuralgia Affects People

There are three types of trigeminal neuralgia: typical, atypical, and transitional.

Want to learn more? Visit the UPMC Neurosurgery website.

Typical trigeminal neuralgia is characterized by sharp pain that comes and goes for either short or long periods of time. Typical trigeminal neuralgia is triggered by activities that stimulate the face, such as:

  • Applying makeup
  • Brushing teeth
  • Drinking a cold beverage or eating
  • Shaving
  • Smiling
  • Touching the face

Atypical trigeminal neuralgia, meanwhile, causes pain that is often burning or aching in nature. This condition has no known triggers, so it can occur without warning. The third category, transitional trigeminal neuralgia, is a combination of the two: It may or may not occur following stimulation of the face.

Causes and Symptoms of Trigeminal Neuralgia

The disorder occurs when pressure is applied to the trigeminal nerve, causing it to malfunction. Trigeminal neuralgia can occur naturally as part of the aging process or as a result of other disorders that damage the covering that protects certain nerves, such as multiple sclerosis.

General symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia include:

  • Spontaneous instances of sharp pain, lasting a few seconds to a few minutes.
  • Constant aching in the jaw.
  • Pain on one side of the face. In rare cases, trigeminal neuralgia may cause pain on both sides of the face.

RELATED: “Brilliant Surgical Skill:” One Woman’s Recovery from Nerve Pain

Diagnosing Trigeminal Neuralgia

No one test can be used to diagnose trigeminal neuralgia. Your doctor may request an MRI to determine the cause of your pain, as well as perform a clinical evaluation and review of your patient history.

Treatment Options for Trigeminal Neuralgia

A number of treatment options are available for trigeminal neuraligia. Your doctor will consider your specific symptoms and triggers, as well as your age and gender when determining the best approach for treatment.

Patients are often given medication, such as anti-convulsants, to control symptoms. Anti-convulsants can help reduce pain and relieve some nerve impulses. If medication isn’t effective, your doctor might consider surgery, including microvascular decompression.

UPMC is one of the nation’s leading centers for microvascular decompression, a minimally invasive surgical procedure that treats the cause of trigeminal neuralgia, offers the most long-lasting relief, and minimizes risk of postoperative side effects.