Facial pain ranges from acute to chronic, from tissue injury to nerve injury. Facial pain conditions include cluster headaches and temporomandibular joint/disorder (TMJ/TMD), to lesser known neuropathic pain conditions, such as trigeminal neuralgia, geniculate neuralgia, glossopharyngeal neuralgia, and anesthesia dolorosa.
Because of the low prevalence of these neuropathic pain conditions (a rough estimate of 0.5% of the US population), they are considered rare diseases by the Office of Rare Diseases (ORD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many people, including doctors and dentists, are not familiar with them, much less come in contact with someone who has these conditions. At times, this means that finding an appropriate diagnosis and treatment can take longer periods of time, sometimes years.
Neuropathic facial pain disorders are a result of damage to one or more of the cranial nerves, which can lead to shock-like pain, burning, dull aches, or painful numbness in the face. Because the nerves affected are responsible for the sensation of the face, something as simple are brushing your teeth or combing your hair can cause significant pain.
The onset of these conditions usually occurs in older adults around age 50. However, there are instances where they may occur in younger adults or children. Neuropathic facial pain is treated with medication (primarily antiepileptic drugs), and if medication fails, or the side effects become too severe, surgery may be recommended in an attempt to repair the nerve. At this time, there is no cure, although there are research organizations who are working towards that goal.
While these conditions are not life threatening, as with other pain conditions, they can cause isolation, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, it is important that they be diagnosed correctly and treated early with the onset of pain. Support is also key. Luckily, there are many support groups out there for people dealing with one of these facial pain conditions.
You can learn more about facial pain disorders and support available to those living with facial pain on the Facial Pain Association’s website.