What is Trigeminal Neuralgia?

The three major sensory divisions of the trigeminal nerve consist of the ophthalmic, maxillary, and mandibular nerves.

Clinical Manifestations

Trigeminal neuralgia is characterized by excruciating paroxysms of pain in the lips, gums, cheek, or chin and, very rarely, in the distribution of the ophthalmic division of the fifth nerve. The pain seldom lasts more than a few seconds or a minute or two but may be so intense that the patient winces, hence the term tic. The paroxysms, experienced as single jabs or clusters, tend to recur frequently, both day and night, for several weeks at a time. They may occur spontaneously or with movements of affected areas evoked by speaking, chewing, or smiling. Another characteristic feature is the presence of trigger zones, typically on the face, lips, or tongue, that provoke attacks; patients may report that tactile stimuli—e.g., washing the face, brushing the teeth, or exposure to a draft of air—generate excruciating pain. An essential feature of trigeminal neuralgia is that objective signs of sensory loss cannot be demonstrated on examination.Trigeminal neuralgia is relatively common, with an estimated annual incidence of 4.5 per 100,000 individuals. Middle-aged and elderly persons are affected primarily, and 60% of cases occur in women. Onset is typically sudden, and bouts tend to persist for weeks or months before remitting spontaneously. Remissions may be long-lasting, but in most patients the disorder ultimately recurs.


Symptoms result from ectopic generation of action potentials in pain-sensitive afferent fibers of the fifth cranial nerve root just before it enters the lateral surface of the pons. Compression or other pathology in the nerve leads to demyelination of large myelinated fibers that do not themselves carry pain sensation but become hyperexcitable and electrically coupled with smaller unmyelinated or poorly myelinated pain fibers in close proximity; this may explain why tactile stimuli, conveyed via the large myelinated fibers, can stimulate paroxysms of pain. Compression of the trigeminal nerve root by a blood vessel, most often the superior cerebellar artery or on occasion a tortuous vein, is the source of trigeminal neuralgia in a substantial proportion of patients. In cases of vascular compression, age-related brain sagging and increased vascular thickness and tortuosity may explain the prevalence of trigeminal neuralgia in later life.

Differential Diagnosis

Trigeminal neuralgia must be distinguished from other causes of face and head pain and from pain arising from diseases of the jaw, teeth, or sinuses. Pain from migraine or cluster headache tends to be deep-seated and steady, unlike the superficial stabbing quality of trigeminal neuralgia; rarely, cluster headache is associated with trigeminal neuralgia, a syndrome known as cluster-tic. In temporal arteritis, superficial facial pain is present but is not typically shocklike, the patient frequently complains of myalgias and other systemic symptoms, and an elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) is usually present .When trigeminal neuralgia develops in a young adult or is bilateral, multiple sclerosis (MS) is a key consideration, and in such cases the cause is a demyelinating plaque at the root entry zone of the fifth nerve in the pons; often, evidence of facial sensory loss can be found on careful examination. Cases that are secondary to mass lesions—such as aneurysms, neurofibromas, acoustic schwannomas, or meningiomas—usually produce objective signs of sensory loss in the trigeminal nerve distribution (trigeminal neuropathy, see below).

Laboratory Evaluation

An ESR is indicated if temporal arteritis is suspected. In typical cases of trigeminal neuralgia, neuroimaging studies are usually unnecessary but may be valuable if MS is a consideration or in assessing overlying vascular lesions in order to plan for decompression surgery.


Drug therapy with carbamazepine is effective in 50–75% of patients. Carbamazepine should be started as a single daily dose of 100 mg taken with food and increased gradually (by 100 mg daily in divided doses every 1–2 days) until substantial (>50%) pain relief is achieved. Most patients require a maintenance dose of 200 mg qid. Doses >1200 mg daily provide no additional benefit. Dizziness, imbalance, sedation, and rare cases of agranulocytosis are the most important side effects of carbamazepine. If treatment is effective, it is usually continued for 1 month and then tapered as tolerated. Oxcarbazepine (300–1200 mg bid) is an alternative to carbamazepine, has less bone marrow toxicity, and probably is equally efficacious. If these agents are not well tolerated or are ineffective, lamotrigine 400 mg daily or phenytoin, 300–400 mg daily, are other options. Baclofen may also be administered, either alone or in combination with an anticonvulsant. The initial dose is 5–10 mg tid, gradually increasing as needed to 20 mg qid.

If drug treatment fails, surgical therapy should be offered. The most widely used method currently is microvascular decompression to relieve pressure on the trigeminal nerve as it exits the pons. This procedure requires a suboccipital craniotomy. Based on limited data, this procedure appears to have a >70% efficacy rate and a low rate of pain recurrence in responders; the response is better for classic tic-like symptoms than for nonlancinating facial pains. In a small number of cases, there is perioperative damage to the eighth or seventh cranial nerves or to the cerebellum, or a postoperative CSF leak syndrome. High-resolution magnetic resonance angiography is useful preoperatively to visualize the relationships between the fifth cranial nerve root and nearby blood vessels.

Gamma knife radiosurgery is also utilized for treatment and results in complete pain relief in more than two-thirds of patients and a low risk of persistent facial numbness; the response is sometimes long-lasting, but recurrent pain develops over 2–3 years in half of patients. Compared with surgical decompression, gamma knife surgery appears to be somewhat less effective but has few serious complications.

Another procedure, radiofrequency thermal rhizotomy, creates a heat lesion of the trigeminal (gasserian) ganglion or nerve. It is used less often now than in the past. Short-term relief is experienced by >95% of patients; however, long-term studies indicate that pain recurs in up to one-third of treated patients. Postoperatively, partial numbness of the face is common, masseter (jaw) weakness may occur especially following bilateral procedures, and corneal denervation with secondary keratitis can follow rhizotomy for first-division trigeminal neuralgia.