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  • Brief episodes of stabbing facial pain.

  • Pain is in the territory of the second and third division of the trigeminal nerve.

  • Pain exacerbated by touch.

General Considerations

Trigeminal neuralgia (“tic douloureux”) is most common in middle and later life. It affects women more frequently than men. Pain may be due to an anomalous artery or vein impinging on the trigeminal nerve.

Clinical Findings

Momentary episodes of sudden lancinating facial pain commonly arise near one side of the mouth and shoot toward the ipsilateral ear, eye, or nostril. The pain may be triggered by such factors as touch, movement, drafts, and eating. In order to lessen the likelihood of triggering further attacks, many patients try to hold the face still while talking. Spontaneous remissions for several months or longer may occur. As the disorder progresses, however, the episodes of pain become more frequent, remissions become shorter and less common, and a dull ache may persist between the episodes of stabbing pain. Symptoms remain confined to the distribution of the trigeminal nerve (usually the second or third division) on one side only.

Differential Diagnosis

The characteristic features of the pain in trigeminal neuralgia usually distinguish it from other causes of facial pain. Neurologic examination shows no abnormality except in a few patients in whom trigeminal neuralgia is symptomatic of some underlying lesion, such as multiple sclerosis or a brainstem neoplasm, in which case the finding will depend on the nature and site of the lesion. Multiple sclerosis must be suspected in a patient younger than 40 years in whom trigeminal neuralgia is the presenting symptom, even if there are no other neurologic signs. Bilateral symptoms should also prompt further investigation. Brain MRI need only be obtained when a secondary cause is suspected; it is usually normal in classic trigeminal neuralgia.


The medications most helpful for treatment are oxcarbazepine (although not approved by the FDA for this indication) or carbamazepine, with monitoring by serial blood counts and liver biochemical tests. If these medications are ineffective or cannot be tolerated, phenytoin should be tried. (Doses and side effects of these medications are shown in Table 24–2.) Baclofen (10–20 mg orally three or four times daily), topiramate (50 mg orally twice daily), or lamotrigine (400 mg orally daily) may also be helpful, either alone or in combination with one of these other agents. Gabapentin may also relieve pain, especially in patients who do not respond to conventional medical therapy and those with multiple sclerosis. Depending on response and tolerance, up to 3600 mg daily orally is given in divided doses.

Table 24–2.Medication treatment for seizures in adults (in alphabetical order within classes).

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