Trigeminal neuralgia is also known as the most painful medical condition, which led to it sometimes being called the suicide disease.
“In the old days when there was no treatment at all, patients were faced with excruciating pain, unpredictable and often unrelenting,” said Dr. Christopher Honey, a Vancouver neurosurgeon and expert in trigeminal neuralgia.
“So there was no real hope for these people and they would often kill themselves,” said Honey, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of British Columbia.
He said the condition has been traced to the trigeminal nerve losing its outer, protective sheath. Nerves can be considered something like a transmitting electrical wire sending signals to and from the brain. And like standard electrician’s wire, nerves are also protected by an insulating cover. But instead of plastic or rubber, nerves are insulated with a substance called myelin.
Without its insulating sheath, the nerve can short-circuit, causing intense bolts of pain.
Honey said a person can imagine when a dentist inadvertently touches an exposed nerve in a tooth. That’s just one small branch of the trigeminal nerve. But with trigeminal neuralgia, the entire nerve is being touched.
“They get what they describe as a bolt of lightning that drops them to their knees,” he said.