OHSU brings relief to 'suicide disease' sufferers

PORTLAND, Ore. Some people call it the "suicide disease."

Trigeminal neuralgia, or TN, is a disorder affecting the areas of the face where the trigeminal nerve's branches are distributed, including the lips, eyes, nose, scalp, forehead, and upper and lower jaws. Often caused by an artery that compresses the nerve, the condition can bring about stabbing, mind-numbing, electric shock-like pain from just a light wind or a finger's glance of the cheek.

Believed to be among the most severe types of pain known to humanity, the most common forms of TN affect 1 in 15,000 to 20,000, but 1 in 5,000 are thought to suffer from some type of facial pain.

People with the condition "are begging to be killed," said Kim Burchiel, M.D., professor and chairman of neurological surgery at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine who sees several new TN cases a week. "I'm telling you, it's total agony."

Just ask James Kirkpatrick of Vancouver. "If I lightly touch my eyebrow, it feels like I stuck my finger in an electrical outlet," said the 47-year-old construction manager, who has suffered from TN for 16 months. "I'll go outside and the breeze hits my face and it feels like the most intense toothache I've ever had in my life. It drops me to my knees almost. I can totally understand why they call it the suicide disease. It affects so many aspects of your life."

Then there's Melissa Hill, 55, a retired California attorney living in Charbonneau who suffered from TN for three years: "It's just very intense. Excruciating is a very good word for it. I would get it down to below my front teeth, on the right side, and right around my eye mostly. I'd get it under control and then it would flare up again, and every time it did, it would take longer and longer to get it under control."

But there is hope. Burchiel has pioneered a new method for classifying and diagnosing TN, and much of the diagnosis can be done by patients themselves

Contact: Jonathan Modie
Oregon Health & Science University

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