Trigeminal Neuralgia: Symptoms, Causes & Management

Trigeminal neuralgia (sometimes known as tic douloureux) is a nerve disorder that results in severe facial pain, often described as an electric shock-like sensation. This persistent condition affects the trigeminal nerve, which plays a role in transmitting sensations from the face to the brain.

The pain experienced by those with trigeminal neuralgia can be disruptive to everyday activities such as eating, speaking, or even just touching the face.

The precise cause of trigeminal neuralgia is not entirely identified, but it is believed to involve irritation of the trigeminal nerve. Some instances have been associated with nerve compression at the base of the skull, where the brain connects with the spinal cord.

The condition is more common in people over 50 and appears more often in women than men.  Proper diagnosis, treatment, and management can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals dealing with trigeminal neuralgia.

Information on Facial Pain

Trigeminal neuralgia is a nerve disorder causing severe facial pain and can affect daily activities.

This is characterized by severe facial pain triggered by everyday activities such as eating or speaking. It often feels like a sharp or burning electric shock and usually affects one side of the face.

The condition is linked to irritation and possible compression of the trigeminal nerve.

Accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatments, and effective management are crucial for improving the lives of those with trigeminal neuralgia. 

Early treatment minimizes the risk of permanent nerve damage and can significantly improve a patient’s quality of life.


Understanding the symptoms can help in early recognition of the condition, enabling timely medical consultation and appropriate management to mitigate the debilitating pain.

Facial Pain and Electric Shock-like Sensations

Trigeminal neuralgia typically affects one side of the face, and the pattern of attacks can vary, with periods of relief followed by a sudden recurrence. The pain is usually experienced on one side of the face, affecting areas such as the cheek, jaw, teeth, nose, and forehead. 

The severity of the pain can vary, but it is often considered exceptionally severe.

The pain episodes can be short-lasting, ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. However, in some cases, individuals may experience multiple episodes quickly, making it seem like the pain is continuous.


These simple, everyday activities can lead to brief bouts of intense pain, making it challenging for individuals with trigeminal neuralgia to carry out routine tasks. Some common triggers include:


Chewing can stimulate the trigeminal nerve, leading to a severe pain episode.

This can cause a nutritional or dietary risk, as the individual may prefer to fast or skip a meal in order to avoid pain.


Talking is another common trigger experienced by those who have the condition.

The movements and vibrations involved in speaking can stimulate the trigeminal nerve.


Like other facial movements, smiling can unexpectedly trigger an episode of trigeminal neuralgia.

This may affect social relationships as it may imply the individual being apathetic or unfriendly when they are just minimizing the risk of going through a pain episode.

Brushing Teeth

Brushing teeth is a common trigger for trigeminal neuralgia episodes.

This can make oral hygiene a challenge for people with this condition.


Shaving is a potential trigger as it involves touch and applying pressure to the skin.

Using an electric razor or changing shaving techniques can help avoid pain triggers.

Touching the face

Similar to brushing the teeth and shaving, touching the face may trigger a pain episode.

This may also affect personal grooming and hygiene, as people with the condition may choose to minimize activities that involve contact with their face.

Feeling a breeze on the face

The wind brushing lightly against the skin can stimulate the trigeminal nerve, causing sharp, sudden facial pain.

Protecting the face in wind-prone environments or using gentle air conditioning can help control triggers.

It is important to note that the triggers and pain intensity can vary among individuals and may change over time.

Causes of Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal Neuralgia is often associated with pressure on the trigeminal nerve. However, in some cases, the condition may be linked to an underlying disorder, such as Multiple Sclerosis, which can damage the myelin sheath. 

In other cases, the cause remains unknown, indicating the potential need for more research in this area.

Vascular Compression

One of the significant causes of trigeminal neuralgia is the compression of the trigeminal nerve. This occurs when a blood vessel, such as an artery or vein, presses against the nerve.

The pressure from the blood vessel can cause the protective myelin sheath around the nerve to wear away, leading to intense facial pain.

Multiple Sclerosis

Another possible cause of trigeminal neuralgia is Multiple Sclerosis (MS). The central nervous system is affected by this autoimmune condition, which can damage the myelin sheaths around the nerves, including the trigeminal nerve.

This can result in increased sensitivity and pain in the facial region.


In some cases, a tumor or lesion may be responsible for the symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia. These growths can compress the trigeminal nerve, leading to pain and discomfort.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to identify and locate the tumor causing the issue.

Facial Trauma

Trigeminal neuralgia may also be caused by facial trauma, such as an injury or surgical procedure that damages the trigeminal nerve.

This damage can lead to nerve irritation and the subsequent development of facial pain.

Risk Factors

Factors that are considered to increase the risk for the development of trigeminal neuralgia include:


The condition is more commonly found in individuals aged 50 and older.

However, it can affect people of any age, including those in their twenties and thirties.


Trigeminal neuralgia is more likely to affect women than men.

However, it’s important to note that men can also develop the condition, and differences in recognition or reporting might impact the recorded gender prevalence.


Diagnosing trigeminal neuralgia can be challenging due to its similarity with other facial pain disorders. However, a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare professional can confirm the condition and devise an appropriate treatment plan.

Medical History and Physical Exam

A doctor will begin the diagnosis process for trigeminal neuralgia by taking a thorough medical history and performing a physical examination. They will ask about the nature and severity of the symptoms and try to determine which activities or conditions seem to trigger the pain.

This may include talking, smiling, chewing, or even gentle touches to the face. The doctor may also ask about any dental procedures, sinus infections, or other conditions that might be related to the development of trigeminal neuralgia.

Neurological Exam

During the neurological exam, the doctor will evaluate the trigeminal nerve by gently touching and examining parts of your face.

This can assist in identifying exactly where the pain is located and the potentially affected branches of the trigeminal nerve. Some tests that might be performed during this exam include:

Assessing Facial Sensations and Reflexes

Assessing facial sensations and reflexes is a vital part of the neurological examination in diagnosing trigeminal neuralgia.

The healthcare provider might gently touch different areas of the face to identify the specific trigger points causing discomfort.

Testing for Sensitivity to Touch, Temperature, and Vibration

Testing for sensitivity to touch, temperature, and vibration can help diagnose the condition.

The healthcare provider applies various stimuli to your face to assess your sensitivity levels and to identify specific trigger points.

Checking for Signs of Muscle Weakness

Checking for signs of muscle weakness is part of the neurological exam.

This evaluation can help identify any loss of muscle strength that might suggest other conditions that can cause facial pain.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

If the doctor suspects that trigeminal neuralgia might be caused by an underlying condition, such as a tumor or multiple sclerosis, they may recommend an MRI. 

This imaging study can provide detailed images of the brain and face, allowing the doctor to evaluate the trigeminal nerves and identify any abnormalities.

Furthermore, it helps in ruling out other possible causes of facial pain and assists in determining the best course of treatment.

Types and Characteristics

There are different types of trigeminal neuralgia, each with distinct characteristics. In this section, we will discuss Typical Trigeminal Neuralgia, Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia, and Post-herpetic Neuralgia.

Typical Trigeminal Neuralgia

Also known as Type 1, Typical Trigeminal Neuralgia is characterized by sharp, intense, and sporadic episodes of pain, usually on one side of the face.

These painful episodes can be triggered by routine activities such as brushing teeth, eating, or wind exposure. Attacks can begin mildly in brief episodes but may gradually intensify if not treated promptly.

Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia

Atypical Trigeminal Neuralgia, or Type 2, differs from the typical form in that the pain is characterized by a constant, burning, or aching sensation, often accompanied by occasional sharp, electric shock-like episodes.

The intensity of pain in atypical trigeminal neuralgia may vary but is generally less severe than that of the typical form. Diagnosis and treatment of atypical trigeminal neuralgia can be more challenging due to the less well-defined nature of the pain.

Post-herpetic Neuralgia

Although not a type of trigeminal neuralgia per se, Post-herpetic Neuralgia is a nerve-related pain that can also involve the trigeminal nerve. This condition develops as a complication of shingles, resulting from the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (the virus that causes chickenpox).

Post-herpetic neuralgia can cause severe, persistent pain in the area affected by the shingles rash, which may involve the face if the trigeminal nerve is involved.

In summary, there are different types of trigeminal neuralgia, each with distinct characteristics and causes. Understanding these variations can help in accurately diagnosing and managing this debilitating chronic pain condition.

Medical Treatment Options

Trigeminal neuralgia treatment typically begins with medications, which can help alleviate pain and control symptoms.

Some common medications prescribed for this condition include anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants, and muscle relaxants.

In more severe cases, surgical interventions may be considered. 

Anticonvulsant Medication

Anticonvulsants are often the first line of treatment for trigeminal neuralgia. They work by suppressing nerve impulses and reducing the intensity of the pain, as well as the frequency of episodes.

Some potential side effects of these medications include dizziness, drowsiness, and skin rashes. Doctors may adjust the dosage or switch between different anticonvulsants to find the most effective treatment for each individual patient.

Tricyclic Antidepressants

Tricyclic antidepressants may also be used to treat trigeminal neuralgia, particularly if the pain is accompanied by depression or anxiety. These medications can help decrease the intensity of the pain signals and improve the patient’s overall mood.

It is important to note that tricyclic antidepressants may cause side effects such as drowsiness, dry mouth, and dizziness.

Muscle Relaxants

In some cases, muscle relaxants may be prescribed to help alleviate the pain associated with trigeminal neuralgia. These medications can help loosen tense muscles, which may contribute to the intensity of the pain.

Muscle relaxants are typically used on a short-term basis and may cause drowsiness or other side effects.

It is essential for patients to follow their doctor’s instructions when taking medications for trigeminal neuralgia. In some instances, the drugs may lose effectiveness or cause unpleasant side effects.

In these cases, doctors may adjust the treatment plan accordingly. Always consult your healthcare provider for personalized recommendations and guidance on managing this condition.

Surgical Procedures

If medications are not effective or if the side effects become intolerable, surgical procedures may be considered for treating trigeminal neuralgia. There are several surgical options available:

Microvascular Decompression

Microvascular decompression (MVD) is a surgical treatment option for trigeminal neuralgia that aims to relieve pressure on the trigeminal nerve by placing a cushion between the offending blood vessel and the nerve. 

Under general anesthesia, a minor incision is made behind the ear, and a small part of the skull is removed to access the trigeminal nerve.

The surgeon then places a small sponge-like pad between the nerve and the blood vessel to prevent any further contact. 

MVD is considered the most effective long-term surgical treatment for trigeminal neuralgia, with around 70-80% of patients experiencing pain relief following the procedure.

Stereotactic Radiosurgery

Stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) is a non-invasive treatment option for trigeminal neuralgia that uses focused beams of radiation to target the trigeminal nerve root. 

This procedure is performed using a specialized machine called a Gamma Knife, which allows for precise delivery of radiation while minimizing damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.

SRS is beneficial for patients who are not candidates for traditional open surgery. 

While pain relief may take several months to achieve, around 70% of patients with trigeminal neuralgia find comfort with this treatment method. However, pain has been observed to return in up to 50% of patients, which can be treated once again.


Rhizotomy is a surgical procedure that involves intentionally damaging the trigeminal nerve to disrupt the transmission of pain signals. There are three main types of rhizotomy:

Percutaneous Rhizotomy

A needle is inserted through the cheek and into the trigeminal nerve, using an electric current or chemical to damage the pain-causing fibers.

This procedure often gives immediate relief of pain. However, the numbness it produces can be somewhat troublesome.

Radiofrequency Rhizotomy

High-frequency heat is applied to the trigeminal nerve through a needle to create a lesion that stops pain signals.

Radiofrequency ablation can provide long-lasting pain relief, but there are potential side effects, such as numbness and facial weakness.

Glycerol Rhizotomy

Glycerol, a specialized agent, is injected into the area surrounding the trigeminal nerve, damaging the pain-causing fibers.

Glycerol injections can provide pain relief for several months or even years. However, the pain may recur after some time.

These procedures can provide relief for patients who have not responded well to medications or other surgical treatments. However, the effects of rhizotomy may be temporary, and pain recurrence is possible.

Balloon Compression

Another minimally invasive option utilized for treating trigeminal neuralgia is the balloon compression procedure. A tiny balloon is inserted through a needle into the trigeminal nerve.

Once in position, the balloon is inflated to compress the nerve, causing the pain-causing fibers to be damaged. Balloon compression offers quick pain relief for many patients, but like rhizotomy, its effects may be temporary, and there is a risk of pain recurrence.

Each surgical option has its benefits and potential drawbacks, so it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional to determine which procedure is best suited for individual needs.

Prevention and Management

Preventing trigeminal neuralgia may not be entirely possible, given its unknown primary cause. Nonetheless, it is crucial for individuals to be aware of the symptoms so they can seek prompt medical attention if required.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making certain lifestyle modifications can help in managing trigeminal neuralgia and reducing the frequency and severity of facial pain. Some fundamental changes include:

Gentle oral care

Use a soft-bristle toothbrush and brush gently to avoid triggering pain while brushing your teeth.

Your dentist or healthcare provider can suggest milder toothpaste, mouthwash, or other products to aid in oral care.

Eating modifications

Choose soft foods and cut them into smaller pieces to reduce the strain on the jaw while chewing.

Dining slowly and mindfully may also reduce the chances of an attack. 

Avoiding triggers

Identify and avoid the specific activities or gestures, such as smiling or talking, that trigger pain.

This can involve protecting the face from cold winds, using an electric shaver, or avoiding known dietary or activity triggers that stimulate the trigeminal nerve.

Managing stress

Stress can exacerbate facial pain, so it’s essential to practice stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and light exercise.

A healthcare provider or psychologist can assist in developing stress management techniques suited to each individual. Moreover, joining support groups or participating in therapy sessions may help individuals to better cope with the chronic nature of the condition.

Alternative Therapies

In addition to lifestyle modifications, some alternative therapies may help alleviate trigeminal neuralgia pain. These therapies should be considered in conjunction with medical advice:


This technique involves the insertion of thin needles at strategic points in the body to stimulate the trigeminal nerves and alleviate pain.

While it may provide some relief, acupuncture should be seen as complementary to the standard treatments for trigeminal neuralgia rather than a primary solution.


Some people with trigeminal neuralgia find it helpful in managing their pain.

This therapy helps individuals learn to control their body’s response to pain through relaxation techniques and self-awareness.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplements 

Ensuring the body has an adequate supply of essential vitamins and minerals, such as Vitamin B12 and magnesium, may help support nerve function.

Some individuals with trigeminal neuralgia might find pain relief from specific vitamins and mineral supplements. For instance, Vitamin B12 deficiency has been linked to nerve pain, and correcting this might improve symptoms.

It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional before starting any alternative therapies to ensure they are safe and appropriate for your specific condition.

By engaging in open communication with healthcare providers and staying informed about the latest advancements, individuals can navigate the challenges associated with this condition and improve their overall quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia?

Trigeminal neuralgia is characterized by severe facial pain, often described as electric shock-like sensations on one side of the face. The pain can be triggered by simple activities such as chewing, talking, smiling, brushing teeth, or shaving.

The condition impacts the trigeminal nerve, responsible for triggering sensations from the face to the brain.

How is trigeminal neuralgia diagnosed?

Diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia mainly relies on the patient’s description of pain, its location, and triggering factors. A thorough medical history and a physical examination can assist in excluding other causes of facial pain. 

In some cases, an MRI may be conducted to identify any underlying conditions or abnormalities that could be causing the pain.

What factors can trigger a flare-up?

Factors that can trigger a flare-up of trigeminal neuralgia include touch or pressure on the face, cold wind exposure, talking, eating, drinking, tooth brushing, shaving, and even smiling.

Identifying and avoiding these triggers may help alleviate pain episodes.

Are there any preventive measures for trigeminal neuralgia?

There are no specific preventive measures for trigeminal neuralgia, as the exact cause remains unknown. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing stress, and following prescribed treatment plans can help reduce the risk of flare-ups.

Monitoring and avoiding personal triggers may also be beneficial in lowering the frequency of pain episodes.

What non-medication treatments are available?

Non-medication treatments for trigeminal neuralgia include surgical options, such as microvascular decompression or nerve ablation procedures, which aim to relieve nerve compression or decrease nerve sensitivity.

Other non-invasive treatments include stereotactic radiosurgery and peripheral nerve blocks. 

It is essential to discuss these options with a healthcare provider to determine the best course of action based on an individual’s condition and needs.