Try to imagine a pain so excruciating that some patients have even told physicians they’d contemplated ending their life to alleviate the suffering. Sadly, this is the type of pain characteristic of trigeminal neuralgia (TN).
Known as the suicide disease, TN is a painful disorder that affects the trigeminal nerve, the nerve primarily responsible for sensations felt in the face.
Patients battling TN experience occasional, sporadic or constant pain in the face that makes everyday tasks like talking, smiling, shaving, eating, and brushing your teeth unbearable. In some cases, even a light breeze against the face can result in terrible pain.
In many cases, patients will completely avoid these triggers, which can result in poor hygiene, weight loss and tooth loss, among other effects. In extreme cases, some patients will take their own lives.
Unfortunately, getting an accurate diagnosis of TN is often the root of the problem. Due to the trigeminal nerve’s location, many patients and their doctors or dentists believe they have some sort of dental issue and teeth are often removed.
Mary Lou Peterson suffered from TN for several years. She too, was close to taking her own life if it had not have been for a TN hotline. Thankfully for Peterson, she was talked out of committing suicide and is now the support group leader of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association – Twin Cities.
So what does having TN feel like?
“It’s like one hundred knives stabbing you repeatedly in the temporal area,” said Peterson.
Once TN is properly diagnosed, but the pain persists and medications no longer help, surgery to sever connections of the trigeminal nerve is a viable option. In many cases, it can alleviate the issue for good.
Andrew Grande, M.D., is an assistant professor and neurosurgeon in the Department of Neurosurgery and performs TN surgeries at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Grande has seen the impact TN can have on a patient’s quality of life and therefore better understanding TN is a major priority for Grande and his colleagues.
“The reality is that we still don’t know what causes trigeminal neuralgia,” said Grande. “Ultimately I think it’s important to get to the bottom of why people get trigeminal neuralgia. Then we can begin to develop better treatments designed to get at the root cause of trigeminal neuralgia.”
In order for Grande to make an accurate diagnosis of TN, he collaborates with the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR) to obtain the highest quality images using high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Pierre-Francois Van de Moortele, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology and Christophe Lenglet, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology and Institute for Translational Neuroscience (ITN) Scholar, are now a part of a newly developed facial pain center that is dedicated to the care of patients with facial pain.
When asked what the surgery has meant to her, Peterson simply stated, “It gave me my life back.”
This treatment is also very rewarding for the doctors who perform the TN surgery.
“This is why we do things. If you can take someone who has disabling pain and return them to a normal life, that’s the reward,” said Stephen Haines, M.D., Head of the Department of Neurosurgery.