Brain and Spine Care
Want to learn more about this at Kettering Health?
If you were feeling jaw pain, your first thought might be to see your dentist. A dentist may think you have a dental abscess and could even perform a root canal.
If the pain persists, eventually, you may realize the problem is not your teeth, after all. This could go on for years before you are finally diagnosed with a nerve disorder called trigeminal neuralgia. For some, this story sounds familiar.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that 150,000 people are diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia yearly. While the disorder can occur at any age, it is most common in people over 50. It’s also more prevalent in women than in men.
Often, trigeminal neuralgia causes a jabbing or shooting pain in the jaw that might feel like an electric shock. The condition affects the trigeminal nerve, which is how the brain receives sensory information from your face. Contact between the nerve and a normal blood vessel, such as a vein or artery, will disrupt the signal to the brain. This malfunction triggers a sharp, electric, shock-like pain in the jaw and cheek areas.
What causes it
Conditions leading to trigeminal neuralgia can occur due to aging, multiple sclerosis, or other problems that affect the sheath covering certain nerves. Sometimes, it can result from a tumor pressing on the nerve and short-circuiting its function.
“It is a very painful condition that usually affects one side of the face, typically the cheek or jaw,” Kettering Health neurosurgeon Dr. Peter Bouz explains. “Pain occurs when one of the blood vessels at the base of the brain comes in close contact with the nerve that supplies sensation to the face.”
Simply touching the face can trigger pain lasting from a moment to several minutes. Those who suffer from the disorder might experience severe pain from even the mildest touch, such as applying makeup or brushing their teeth.
How it’s diagnosed
Some people live with the condition for many years before seeking treatment. If you experience prolonged or regular bouts of facial pain unrelieved by over-the-counter medications, that is a sign that it is time to see a doctor.
Seeing a dentist to rule out a dental issue can be helpful, but the problem can be readily differentiated from dental pain. Typically, the pain is sharp and brought on by talking, chewing, touching, or washing the face, air hitting the face, and so on.
A brain lesion or other neurological abnormality might also result in trigeminal neuralgia, as might surgical injuries, facial or jaw trauma, and even stroke.
How it’s treated
Once diagnosed, there are several treatment options, including medications, surgery, and radiation.
While surgery may sound intimidating, it is highly effective for treating trigeminal neuralgia. One of the most common procedures is a surgical treatment called microvascular decompression (MVD).
“This procedure takes about two hours and involves making a small hole in the skull behind the ear to access the trigeminal nerve,” says Dr. Bouz. “ We then move away from the offending blood vessel pressing on the nerve. And then the nerve is padded to avoid future contact.”
One of the most advanced forms of treatment for trigeminal neuralgia uses Gamma Knife Icon ™, a type of stereotactic radiosurgery. Radiosurgery delivers highly focused radiation beams to an abnormality in the brain without a knife or surgical incision.
Radiosurgery with Gamma Knife has been offered by Kettering Health Main Campus since 1999 and has treated more than 500,000 patients. The procedure is painless and incision-free. Physicists plan each treatment and keep radiation exposure low, and it avoids the risk of traditional surgery.
Get the help you need
If you’ve been experiencing unexplained facial or jaw pain, it might be time to have a specialist evaluate the problem.
The month's most popular health news, stories, and tips in your inbox.Sign Up