Fixing the Pain in Your Brain: October 8, 2011

It’s one of the worst pains know to man, but it was unknown to Tina Shores, until she fell victim to trigeminal neuralgia.

“They say it’s worse than childbirth which I can’t verify because I never had children but if it’s anything like that I don’t want to ever have children.”

“It really is intense pain in the face that is literally so bad that people can’t eat. So literally some patients will almost starve to death. Because they can’t eat, they can’t talk. Any movement in their face causes pain,” says Dr. Dean Lin, a neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

Tina’s head may have been driving her crazy, but there was a valid medical explanation for her suffering

“It’s actually caused by a vascular compression on the fifth nerve, the trigeminal nerve, as it exits the brainstem,” says Dr. Lin.

There is usually a blood vessel sitting on top of the nerve. As it pulsates it gives off constant, shooting pain. Many patients make trips to multiple doctors and dentists before finding the problem. The next step is fixing it.

“The definitive surgery is not for everybody. It's where we actually go into the back of the skull, the back of the brain, and we basically put a Teflon sponge between a blood vessel in the nerve,” says Dr. Lin.

Older patients may choose a less invasive procedure, which doesn’t require opening the skull. But it does have a common side effect.

“There are other techniques, percutaneous techniques where we actually insert a needle into the nerve and we burn the nerve. It leaves the face very numb, but it takes care of the pain,” says Dr. Lin.

Tina opted to have the sponge put in to separate the nerve and blood vessel.

“They go in behind your right ear or they did mine.”

The difference was immediate.

“After the surgery I had not another pain, no symptoms from the surgery or the scar,” says Tina.

For trigeminal neuralgia patients like Tina, surgery was crucial to fixing the pain in her brain.