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Health A-Z

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Harvard Medical School

Symptoms

Trigeminal neuralgia causes episodes of sudden, intense facial pain that usually last for two minutes or less. In most cases, the pain is described as excruciating, and its quality is "sharp," "stabbing," "piercing," "burning," "like lightning" or "like an electric shock." In most cases, only one side of the face is affected.

The pain of trigeminal neuralgia is recognized as one of the most excruciating forms of pain known. The pain often is triggered by nonpainful facial movements or stimuli, such as talking, eating, washing the face, brushing the teeth, shaving or touching the face lightly. In some cases, even a gentle breeze on the cheek is enough to trigger an attack. Approximately 50% of patients also have specific trigger points or zones on the face, usually located somewhere between the lips and nose, where an episode of trigeminal neuralgia can be triggered by a touch or a temperature change. In some cases, a sensation of tingling or numbness comes before the pain.

Attacks of trigeminal neuralgia can vary significantly, and may occur in clusters, with several episodes following in series over the course of a day. For unknown reasons, trigeminal neuralgia almost never occurs at night when the person is sleeping.

Some patients also have a cheek twitch or muscle spasm, wincing, a facial flush, a tearing eye or salivation on the same side of the face. It is the facial muscle spasms that led to the older term, tic douloureux (in French, tic means muscle twitch or spasm; douloureux means painful).

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