The trigeminal nerve or fifth cranial nerve is the nerve that sends pain impulses to the brain. When the nerve malfunctions, impulses can be sent at the wrong time, when there is no real pain. However, the sufferer will still feel sharp pain of great intensity. It usually occurs when the protective coating around the trigeminal nerve, the myelin sheath is damaged. High blood pressure, tumours and multiple sclerosis can cause this damage. Rarely, a tangle of arteries and veins called an arteriovenous malformation can also lead to the attack. The attacks can span from a few seconds or to a few minutes, the pain is often unbearable It often only affects one side of the face, usually the right hand side.
The attacks are often brought about by light touching of the face, this can be due to light intensity, wind, air conditioning, eating, washing and even breathing. This means that it is incredibly difficult to control. It usually occurs in those who are over 40 and is more frequent in women than in men.
Treatment can vary but usually:
- Anticonvulsant Drugs
Carbamazepine is often used in treatment in order to prevent nerve firing. It slows down nerve impulses, reducing the ability to transmit pain messages. It has to be taken in large doses in order to be effective.
Surgery such as nerve replacement therapy can be used in treatment. Through cutting part of the nerve, numbness occurs and the pain is dulled or ceases. However, the nerve may regrow which results in further pain and the need for more surgery and medications.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is researching the disease. Mice can be used to understand the relationship between the nervous system and the vascular system. Researchers are looking at the role estrogens may play in affecting nerve pain activity, due to the disease being more prevalent in women compared to men.