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What is trigeminal neuralgia (TGN)?

‘Sudden, severe, brief stabbing pain which occurs in attacks, typically of a few seconds duration, usually on one side of the face and provoked by light touch’

What causes TGN?

Classical trigeminal neuralgia is caused by a blood vessel or vessels pressing on the nerve as it enters the brainstem. The pressure of the nerve over time damages the outer surface or ‘insulation’ of the nerve causing erratic messages to be transmitted along the nerve. These erratic impulses can cause a ‘short circuit’ between light touch and pain pathways. There are other causes of TGN symptoms aside from vascular compression however this is much less common.

Why has my GP referred me to a neurosurgeon?

It is likely that your GP has commenced you on medication to control your neuralgia symptoms such as carbamazepine, phenytoin or gabapentin. Although these drugs were first used to treat epilepsy, they also act to dull down the pain sensation in TGN. It is important that the dosages of these medications are controlled by your doctor and that you increase your dose very gradually under supervision since they also have side effects.

If your pain has persisted despite these medications or if you have not been able to tolerate these tablets due their side effects, your GP may refer you to see a neurosurgeon at St George’s to determine that the pain you are suffering is actually TGN and to discuss surgical treatments.

Non-tablet treatment can be broadly classified into invasive surgery (microvascular decompression or MVD) and non-invasive (injections through the cheek into the nerve or gamma knife radiosurgery). The surgeon will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of all the options and the likely success rate/recurrence rate. In some cases (e.g. in the elderly patient) it has been shown that the risk of surgery outweighs any potential benefit however MVD surgery has been shown to provide the longest relief from pain of all procedures for TGN.

The neurosurgical team at St George’s performs a significant number of these surgeries every year. We work closely with the pain service (Dr Jim Blackburn) who provide a comprehensive facial pain service including rhizolysis injections and lesioning. We also benefit from on-site maxillo-facial, neurology services and access to high-resolution skull base imaging using our 3T MRI scanner in the Atkinson Morley Wing.