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For the past three weeks, Eliza Fitter, aged 65, has been experiencing excruciating painful attacks on the right side of her face several times each day. The pain is often triggered while eating, drinking, and brushing her teeth. Eliza presents to her physician’s office where she is diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia.
Trigeminal neuralgia, also known as tic douloureux, is a neuropathic pain condition that involves the trigeminal or fifth cranial nerve, which supplies sensory information to the skin and mucous membranes of the face, as well as motor information for the muscles of mastication. And because of that, pain can often be triggered by chewing, brushing the teeth, shaving, or even just smiling!
Now, the exact cause of trigeminal neuralgia is not well known, but it’s thought to be associated with vascular compression of the trigeminal nerve root. Some risk factors include female sex, increased age, and family history, as well as disorders like hypertension, multiple sclerosis, a brainstem tumor, an aneurysm, or a previous stroke.
Now, the main symptom of trigeminal neuralgia is a sudden, excruciating, sharp, pain, similar to an electric shock. Typically, the pain is unilateral and involves the lower face, from the corner of the mouth to the jaw, although in some clients it can also involve the area around the nose, cheek, and above the eye. The pain occurs in paroxysmal attacks that generally last from a few seconds up to 2 minutes, and may recur after just minutes, as often as a hundred times per day! As a consequence,trigeminal neuralgia can be incapacitating and interfere with the client’s daily activities like eating, sleeping, or communicating. In the long term, the pain could be so unbearable that it may lead to mental health disorders like depression, and some clients may even consider suicide.
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