Like a giant needle, “jabbed right up through your cheek.”
That’s how 83-year-old Clair Bartels describes the pain he felt whenever he had a trigeminal neuralgia (TN) attack. “It paralyzes you. I yawned once and it hit me. It was bad news.”
Bartels’ experience with trigeminal neuralgia tells a story familiar to those who suffer from the painful condition. TN is a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal nerve, one of the most widely distributed nerves in the head, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The condition causes extreme, sporadic, facial pain that lasts anywhere from a few seconds to as long as two minutes. The attacks can occur in quick succession, or in volleys lasting as long as two hours.
Luckier than most
A retired manufacturing engineer who was born in North Dakota, Bartels now calls the Twin Cities his home. He was first diagnosed with TN about five years ago. He was luckier than many other TN patients; his condition was identified early following a dental procedure. His dentist suggested that Bartels might have trigeminal neuralgia. Because TN is rare, dentists and primary care physicians don’t often diagnose it right away.
The dentist didn’t have anyone to send Bartels to, so he went to see a nerve specialist on his own. The specialist referred him to a neurological chiropractor.
“I saw him about a dozen times,” Bartels said. “He did some work on the cheek, jaw and neck muscles, but it didn’t really help.” Bartels went back and forth to a few other specialists before a surgeon referred him to University of Minnesota Health Neurosurgeon Stephen Haines, MD.
“When I met with Dr. Haines, he was very familiar with my condition,” Bartels said. “He had done a lot of trigeminal neuralgia-related surgeries.” Eventually, Bartels opted for what’s known as a balloon compression rhizotomy, an outpatient procedure that is one of the least invasive of the surgical options available to people with TN.
During the procedure, the patient is anesthetized and a needle is inserted through the cheek into the trigeminal nerve. A catheter fitted with an inflatable balloon is inserted through the needle. The balloon is then expanded, which compresses the nerve causing the pain, damaging it in such a way that it can no longer send pain messages to the brain. This surgery isn’t a permanent fix for trigeminal neuralgia; but it can eliminate the pain for years.
Get help right away
Bartels chose to tell his story so others will know that there is help available.
“I've heard horror stories about people having teeth pulled when they don’t get their trigeminal neuralgia diagnosed right away. I want to get as many people knowledgeable about the help that’s available as I can. My advice to anyone is to call Dr. Haines at the U of M right away before it becomes unbearable.”