Trigeminal neuralgia, also called tic douloureux, is a type of neuralgia, or nerve pain. It is usually felt as a sudden stabbing or shocking pain in the jaw or cheek area on one side of the face. Because of its intensity, it can be challenging to live with. However, there are treatments available that can help.
The trigeminal nerve
Your nervous system involves a complex network of nerves that send impulses from different parts of your body to your brain. Trigeminal neuralgia involves one particular nerve—the trigeminal nerve, which is one of the largest nerves in your head.
Trigeminal neuralgia affect parts of your head such as your face, jaw, gums, eyes and forehead.
Causes of trigeminal neuralgia
Often, trigeminal neuralgia is caused by a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve. This compression damages the nerve over time, interfering with its normal functioning.
Symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia
The main symptom of trigeminal neuralgia is a sudden pain, usually felt on one side of your jaw or cheek. The pain can be mild, especially when the condition first develops, but more often it is sharp, shooting, stabbing, burning or electric shock-like.
Attacks tend to come and go, each lasting between about 10 seconds and two minutes. They can be present for a while, then go away for weeks or months, then come back again. People with trigeminal neuralgia might have no pain between attacks, or might have a dull ache in the face and jaw.
The pain can be triggered by talking, chewing, swallowing, eating hot or cold food or drinks, and brushing your teeth. Or it can come on for no obvious reason.
People who have trigeminal neuralgia often feel quite distressed by the pain, and the way it comes and goes. They can feel down, lose weight and have trouble sleeping.
Diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia
To diagnose trigeminal neuralgia, a doctor might:
- ask you about your symptoms
- do a physical examination of your head and neck
- do some simple tests to check your nerves.
The doctor may also suggest you have an MRI scan to help find the cause or show whether surgery is needed.
Treatment of trigeminal neuralgia
Trigeminal neuralgia can be treated in different ways depending on how bad the pain is and whether the cause is known.
The main treatment is carbamazepine, which belongs to a group of drugs known as anticonvulsants. Other medications, such as oxycarbazine, gabapentin or baclofen, can sometimes be used. Learn more about medicines.
Sometimes surgery is an option. For example:
- if there is a blood vessel compressing the trigeminal nerve, the vessel may be removed
- part of the trigeminal nerve can be deliberately damaged or destroyed using electricity, radiation, or injections.
With surgery, there is a risk of temporary or permanent numbness on the face.
Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, chiropractic and nutritional medicine might help, although there is not much evidence to say whether they do or not. Botox might help, but more research is needed to know for sure.
Last reviewed: August 2016