In many patients, the culprit may be a blood vessel pulsating against the nerve. The insulation around the nerve wears away, letting the nerves misfire. This leads the brain to misinterpret normal facial sensations as searing pain.
“Using high-resolution MRIs, we can see an artery in the brain pushing on the trigeminal nerve, and eventually, the cabling of the nerve wears off,” said Dr. Babak Jahromi, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “The pain has triggers that make living a normal life almost impossible – generating knife-like stabs from a kiss, a cold wind, brushing your hair or taking a shower.”
About 150,000 people are diagnosed nationwide each year with the painful condition, although 2 to 3 percent of multiple sclerosis patients suffer from it, Jahromi said.
It’s more common in women than men by a 2 to 1 ratio, and tends to afflict people in their 50s and older, but it can hit anyone, the doctors said.