Many people have never heard of suicide disease, which is medically known as trigeminal neuralgia. It has been called “the most excruciating pain known to man” according to Parent Herald. It can mimic a terrible migraine headache but is often much more severe and much longer in duration.
The pain, which is commonly described as a strong electric shock behind the eye or a sudden blow to the head, can leave patients in a debilitated and non-functioning state. It gets its nickname because many people who have not been successfully treated have committed suicide in order to relieve the pain.
It can seem like a migraine headache, causing nausea, vomiting, disordered thinking, and head-crushing headache. The pain often radiates from the lower face and jaw and sometimes affects areas above the eye and the nose or what feels like places behind the eye and nose. Traditional migraine medicines do not help trigeminal neuralgia because it is not a migraine. It can flare for months on end, then suddenly and quickly go into remission. Some people only have one episode a lifetime, others go on to have very frequent episodes. Although nobody knows exactly what causes the disorder, it is thought to be an inflamed cranial nerve, the trigeminal nerve. It affects mostly people over the age of forty and more men than women, but the severity of cases when they happen seem to be the same between the two sexes.
Children may suffer from it as well, which is challenging because they often cannot articulate what the severe pain is. While there are medications, including opiates, to control this devastating syndrome, medications tend to fail in about half of cases, and surgical procedures must then be considered. It is thought that sometimes a blood vessel is pressing on the trigeminal nerve, which branches to many areas of the face. About 45,000 cases have been reported in the United States. Kandice Theriot is one of those Americans who are living with suicide disease. She states the pain is not always present, but when it is, it is unbearable, according to KATC.
“I like to say if you ever get hit in the face with brass knuckles or the brass knuckles are connected to a taser that’s what it feels like.”
The syndrome struck her three years ago at age twenty-eight while she was washing her face. The pain was crippling and blind-siding but lasted for just a few minutes the first time. Since then, various other things have triggered longer lasting episodes, including brushing her teeth or wind hitting her in the face. It has taken a huge toll on her quality of life, she says, because she cannot function when it strikes and therefore is fearful of leaving her home.
“You get very lonely and it’s so painful that you never want to go out and have that pain happen in front of people and have to explain it to anybody.”
Dr. Kevin Hargrave, a neurologist, has seen only about fifty cases in his lifetime, but he says the pain of the condition is so bad that it causes many patients to stop eating, because chewing seems to set off an episode.
“There are a handful of conditions that I encounter as a neurologist that are extremely unfortunate and trigeminal neuralgia is one of them. Sometimes the patients can be distraught, exasperated, sleep deprived, depressed. It changes their whole life.”
There are options in treatment when it comes to trigeminal neuralgia, but there are a few refractory cases. There is a surgery that places a pad between the nerve and whatever is causing pressure on it, alleviating symptoms in some people. There are also medications available that make the pain manageable, but they have various troubling side effects. Dr. Hargrave said treatment is effective 80 percent of the time.