Terrible Facial Pain? Help for Former ‘Suicide Disease’
Trigeminal neuralgia has been called the “suicide disease” because of the terrible pain it can cause. Find out how modern treatments make this condition easier to bear.
Trigeminal neuralgia can trigger unbearable pain on one side of the face. Small wonder that people once believed it drove sufferers to take their own lives.
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Today, medical advances have created better ways to manage the condition.
“A diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia no longer means a lifetime of excruciating pain,” says Emad Estemalik, MD, an expert on headache and facial pain.
Trigeminal neuralgia is a disorder affecting the trigeminal cranial nerve, which carries sensations from the face to the brain.
When something compresses this nerve — often, a blood vessel in the brain — pain erupts on one the side of the face.
Those with the disorder often describe “stabbing” or “shock-like” pain that may last from several seconds to minutes at a time. Activities like eating, talking, brushing your teeth or shaving can prompt or aggravate the pain.
“There are times when trigeminal neuralgia goes into remission and times when it comes back,” notes Dr. Estemalik.
“It’s hard to predict who might develop trigeminal neuralgia. The condition can strike anyone,” he says.
Fortunately, it’s relatively rare. Only about 15,000 cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.
The risk for developing trigeminal neuralgia rises after age 50. (Women are at slightly increased risk.) Some evidence suggests trigeminal neuralgia may run in families, who inherit a similar blood vessel structure.
Doctors take intense, one-sided facial pain seriously and must rule out all potential causes.
They’ll do a neurological exam, considering the type of pain, its location and potential triggers. They may order an MRI or other tests as well.
Dr. Estemalik outlines four options to help his patients manage pain:
Unfortunately, trigeminal neuralgia is a chronic condition that typically can’t be cured.
However, with the newer treatments available, most patients are able to manage their pain, says Dr. Estemalik. And the unfortunate nickname can be put to rest.