I had never heard of Trigeminal Neuralgia until a few months ago. And then, out of the blue, it arrived in the forehead of a friend of mine. His life was rapidly put on hold and he went, in the space of a couple of weeks, from being one of the sunniest, most positive people I know to a grey shadow of himself.
What is Trigeminal Neuralgia?
The trigeminal nerve is one of 12 pairs of cranial nerves that are linked to the brain and its main task is to allow you to feel sensations in your face. It has multiple branches, but there are three main strands running from your jaw up to your forehead, inside your skull rather than underneath your skin. When something goes wrong with this trigeminal nerve, however, you are left with an extremely painful problem - Trigeminal Neuralgia (TN) - which is a terrible thing indeed.
Its symptoms are bursts of random, intense, unbearable pain, usually on one side of your face or forehead. It can develop in two different ways - ‘Typical’: where an electric shock like pain happens at the same place on your head, erratically and unexpectedly, and can be triggered by everyday things as simple as talking, chewing your food or cleaning your teeth, and ‘Atypical’: which gives you the same symptoms as well as a constant, continuous dull ache.
My friend told me it was quite simply petrifying. One minute he was walking down the street quite normally; the next it was as if someone had hit him hard on the skull with the sharp edge of an axe: a blinding, stabbing pain that was more intense and terrible than anything he had ever experienced before.
It left him terrified of moving. Any unsuspecting jolt might set it off. Once he was stranded as he crossed a busy street, paralysed in the midst of a stream of hooting, angry drivers, unable to take a step forward or back. Sometimes the water from his morning shower set it off. Sometimes merely a breeze. Chewing his food became a minefield of possible agony; moving his head or even smiling were things to be avoided.
He went to see a doctor, who told him it was one of those things that was incurable; that it could be managed with a drug, but was only likely, over time, to get worse, and the dosage stronger. He went for a second opinion, then a third. The diagnosis and the prescription was the same. There was no hope of it miraculously disappearing as randomly as it had arrived.
What is commonly prescribed for Trigeminal Neuralgia?
Conventional medicine’s drug of first choice is the anti-convulsant Carbamazepine (Tegretol) which is used to treat seizures and bi-polar disorder, but has also been found to be effective for TN. As my friend found out, it has a whole host of side effects which included making him feel sick and dizzy, permanently sleepy and unsteady on his feet. All of them, intensely distressing though they were, infinitely preferable, however, to the agonising pain.
The problem here is that as time goes on, the dosage of the drug has to be increased, and Tegretol is addictive when used long term. And although it may temporarily lesson the intensity of any symptoms, it doesn’t resolve the root cause of the problem.
A warning here too: if you are of Asian descent, carbamazepine can trigger a serious reaction, so make sure your doctor tests you genetically before prescribing you the drug.
When the pain gets worse you may be offered surgery with the Gamma knife. Do your research carefully because one review showed that only "44% of TN patients were pain free after Gamma knife surgery and a majority of patients continued to live in as much or more pain after the surgery.” (Journal of Neurosurgery. 2005 Mar;102(3):434-41. Gamma knife surgery for trigeminal neuralgia: outcomes and prognostic factors. Sheehan J et al)
My friend took the drug and was hugely grateful, because it did stop the majority of the pain and lessen the quantity and severity of the attacks. But they still came and, in the meantime, the pills turned him into a half zombie. His responses were dulled, as was the clarity of his mind, while mild depression left his days overcast and cloudy.
When he finally, weeks later, thought to ask me what I thought, I hadn’t any definitive answer, having had no experience of the condition before. But I firmly believe that there is always a solution if you can only work out the puzzle of why something happened in the first place. And even if you can’t, that if you address any imbalance of the body’s systems, your immune system (which is far cleverer than any pill) will begin the process of mending whatever has gone out of sync.
Getting to the root of it
I asked him to give me two weeks and to follow my recommendations precisely (at the same time, obviously, as continuing to take his doctor’s prescription). He clearly held out precisely zero hope that anything I put to him would work - but was desperate enough to try anything at all if there was even a shred of the possibility of a return to normality.
Magnesium for Trigeminal Neuralgia
I suggested two things initially: first, that he take steps to calm his Trigeminal nerve, which seemed to be on high alert, firing off at the slightest disturbance, and secondly, rebuild the protective myelin sheath around it, strengthening the nerve at the same time.
Magnesium achieves both ends. Studies suggest that a combination of Magnesium and Folic acid calms the nerves and may enable better flow of impulses along them. Research also shows that Magnesium taken intravenously once a week speeds up this process.
Diet for Trigeminial Neuralgia
Next, I asked him to look at his diet. He had virtually given up eating anything at all because chewing, however gently, had become traumatic and he was so wary of triggering yet another attack. He drank Diet Coke regularly several times a day instead, alongside numerous cups of tea and coffee - all taken with several hefty teaspoons of sugar - and his favourite evening snack was dark chocolate, sucked slowly. He ate, in fact, quantities of many of the known TN triggers as a matter of course. Fatty foods, caffeine and aspartame have all been shown to trigger TN attacks. I suggested he also remove anything that might start the nerve firing, cutting out hot foods, like chili, or anything particularly spicy, sweet or sour, to minimise the possibility of setting off further attacks.
There are certain foods that are known to never trigger pain. The list includes brown rice, cooked or dried cherries, cranberries, pears, prunes, cooked artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, chard, lettuce, spinach, beans and sweet potatoes. He experimented and found he could eat them safely.
I also asked him to drink a herbal tea several times daily, made of a mixture of Hypericum, valerian and kava. Tests show that this combination reduces pain in the neurons, as well as any inflammation, more effectively than carbamazepine. (Braz. J. Oral Sci. vol.14 no.1 Piracicaba Jan./Mar. 2015 Analgesic effect of Hypericum perforatum, Valeriana officinalis and Piper methysticum for orofacial pain. Luciana Cristina Nowacki et al)
Different studies show that using capaiscin (a cream made from chili peppers) blocks pain messages from your nerves and in conjunction with acupuncture speeds up TN recovery further. So we ordered a roll-on in a red tube from Amazon in the USA (make sure you go for the roll on, because if you get it as a cream or liquid and it drops somehow by mistake, it really burns!). The science suggests using it 3 times a day for 4 or 5 days.
Acupuncture for Trigeminal Neuralgia
Acupuncture is my go to therapy of choice for a multitude of problems, clearing blockages in the meridians and boosting energy, and so I signed him up for a session a day for ten days in a row. There are studies that have been done using specific points that have been shown to make a difference within a short space of time.
After three sessions, he reported that the stabbing had stopped entirely and he was left with a mild ache that only sometimes flared up, usually while he was brushing his teeth.
After ten, he was pain free.
Hope then, for Trigeminal Neuralgia. I will watch and see, and report back.
Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health.
Sign up to our free newsletter for fortnightly holistic health tips and a regular dose of get-well advice. SUBSCRIBE NOW!