Trigeminal neuralgia is caused by a dysfunction in the trigeminal nerve, which carries pain signals from the face, forehead, and jaw. This dysfunction can be caused by blood vessels or tumors that can put pressure on the trigeminal nerve, or degradation of the nerve itself caused by a number of conditions. People may confuse it for TMJ because they both cause pain in these areas. Here’s some more information about the condition and how to distinguish it from TMJ.
Symptoms of Trigeminal Neuralgia
Trigeminal neuralgia can cause many different types of pain, such as:
Periodic mild pain
Occasional sharp stabbing pain. Sometimes the pain may be spontaneous. Other times, it seems to be caused by:
Touching the face, sometimes even a light breeze on the face
Pain may be in the mouth, including lips, teeth, gums, jaw, or the face, such as the cheek, the eye, or forehead
Pain may occur on one side only
Pain can affect your entire face, or just a tiny, often circular, spot
Trigeminal neuralgia is a progressive condition that begins with infrequent mild pain, but attacks become more frequent and severe over time.
How Do I Tell the Difference?
It’s easy to confuse TMJ and trigeminal neuralgia because TMJ can irritate the trigeminal nerve. However, trigeminal neuralgia tends to cause only pain, while TMJ can result in numerous other symptoms. The main way to tell the two conditions apart is that trigeminal neuralgia consists of the pain only, and it doesn’t have any of the other symptoms TMJ sufferers may experience, such as problems in the jaw joint–the irregular motion, popping, or grinding. TMJ can also cause symptoms associated with irritating other nerves, such as tinnitus, which may be related to an irritation of the cochlear nerve.
The pain of trigeminal neuralgia also tends to be the sharp, electric pain of nerve disruption. You won’t experience the duller aches that come with excessive pressure on your teeth, muscle tension, or jaw dysfunction. And trigeminal neuralgia can only cause pain in areas served by the trigeminal nerve–jaw, face, and forehead–you won’t experience neck or upper back pain with trigeminal neuralgia.
However, the only way to get a positive diagnosis is with an MRI that can look for damage to the trigeminal nerve.