Trigeminal neuralgia is a disorder that affects the trigeminal nerve, which runs from the jaw into the face. In trigeminal neuralgia, the nerve function is disrupted. This can cause attacks of mild or intense pain in the cheek, jaw, teeth, gums, lips or even the eye and forehead. The attacks can happen spontaneously or are triggered by mild stimulation to the face such as shaving, smiling, eating, or brushing your teeth. Attacks may initially be occasional twinges of mild pain but as trigeminal neuralgia progresses there may be longer, more frequent bouts of severe, shooting or jabbing pain like an electric shock. Episodes of frequent attacks can last days, weeks, months or longer, and there can be periods where no pain is experienced.
Trigeminal neuralgia is often a problem of pressure being put on the nerve, usually from an enlarged artery adjacent to the nerve, but in some cases it may be due to a tumor compressing the nerve. In other cases it can be related to multiple sclerosis or a similar disorder that causes damage to certain nerves. In many people who have suffered from shingles, trigeminal neuralgia can be a result of the virus, along with nerve pain in other areas of the body. Trigeminal neuralgia can occur as a result of aging, or in other cases, a cause cannot be found. It occurs in women more often than men, and is more likely to occur in people over the age of 50.
There are a variety of treatments that may be used in Western medicine for trigeminal neuralgia. Medications are usually the first treatment, such as anti-convulsants or muscle relaxing medications. However, over time, some people with the disorder may stop responding to medications or experience unpleasant side effects. In these cases, injections to numb the nerve or surgery to relieve the pressure on the nerve may be considered.
Acupuncture is an option well worth considering for trigeminal neuralgia. Studies in recent years have shown the positive effects of acupuncture for nerve disorders, and the World Health Organization lists acupuncture as a viable treatment for trigeminal neuralgia. From a Chinese medicine perspective, trigeminal neuralgia has two main causes. The first is over-exposure to cold and wind, causing an obstruction of the blood and qi-energy in the meridians of the face, leading to sudden attacks of facial pain and spasms of the facial muscles, symptoms which are aggravated by cold and relieved by heat. The attacks may be accompanied by runny nose and excess salivation. The second cause is due to internal factors, mainly an imbalance of liver and stomach energy, causing sudden attacks of facial pain with more of a burning sensation, accompanied by bloodshot eyes, tearing of the eyes, thirst, and irritability. In this case, the condition may develop as a result of lifestyle and dietary habits which over time may lead to an internal imbalance.
In either case, acupuncture can be remarkably effective in alleviating facial pain without side effects. Treatments help to improve circulation to relieve pain and irritation of the trigeminal nerve. Acupuncture can help to relieve the symptoms during a flare-up and may also promote better functioning of the trigeminal nerve so that flare-ups are less likely to occur or are more mild when they do occur. Indeed, acupuncture is shown to be a great option for trigeminal neuralgia, and can help you regain your lifestyle and live free of pain.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.