Posted on: February 18, 2014
The Suicide Disease: Trigeminal Neuralgia
By Alain C.J. De Lotbinière, MD, CM, FACS, FRCSC; Medical Director of the Gamma Knife Center, Northern Westchester Hospital
Imagine a stabbing pain in your jaw or cheek triggered by a mere touch or breath of wind, or a constant aching, burning sensation in your face that doesn’t respond to pain killers. This is what sufferers of trigeminal neuralgia (TN) experience, and it can be so incredibly painful that trigeminal neuralgia has also been called “the suicide disease.” For many sufferers, the pain worsens during the winter months.
TN typically hits people in their 50s or older and, for reasons that aren’t completely clear, more women suffer from TN than men. While the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke puts the incidence of new cases at about 14,000 a year, I think it’s very likely that this is an underestimate because so many people have trouble getting a proper diagnosis.
The pain is usually the result of pressure on the trigeminal nerve, which transmits sensations from the face to the brain. A nearby artery can enlarge, putting pressure on the nerve and wear away its protective sheath. This leads to intermittent or constant pain signaling to the brain, and the attacks can worsen over time.