How Physical Therapy Can Help Trigeminal Neuralgia

Trigeminal neuralgia is a diagnosis we frequently see at Novera Headache Center. It is characterized by intense, recurring facial pain that may feel sharp, stabbing or like an electric-shock on one side of the face. While symptoms often occur without an obvious cause, sometimes dental work or facial trauma can be attributed to onset of pain. More often than not, however, it is caused by compression somewhere along the trigeminal nerve. Most frequently, it occurs in women more than men, often over the age of 50, and the duration of symptoms may vary.

Understanding Trigeminal Neuralgia

Before diving into treatment options, we first need to understand what trigeminal neuralgia is and how it works. The trigeminal nerve, or the fifth cranial nerve, leaves the base of the skull and branches into three divisions that control sensations in different regions of the face. Trigeminal neuralgia occurs when this nerve becomes compressed or irritated, leading to episodes of severe facial pain. These episodes can last for seconds or minutes, with triggers as simple as a gentle breeze or a touch on the face. Patients often find that simple daily activities like eating, drinking, or speaking can be excruciatingly painful, severely impacting their quality of life.

Traditional Treatments and Their Limitations

Standard treatment options for trigeminal neuralgia include anticonvulsant medications, muscle relaxants, nerve blocks, and, in severe cases, surgical interventions. While these treatments may provide temporary relief, they often come with side effects, and may not fully resolve symptoms. As a result, many individuals living with trigeminal neuralgia continue to search for alternative and complementary healthcare options to alleviate their symptoms.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

As a physical therapy clinic, we regularly see the impact that manual, hands-on interventions can have on trigeminal neuralgia. When applied to trigeminal neuralgia, our goal is to not only target the affected areas but also address potential underlying factors contributing to a patient’s pain. A major component of treatment is addressing the cervical spine.

The cervical spine, which is made up by the top seven vertebrae in the spine, plays an important role in supporting the head, facilitating head movement, and protecting the spinal cord. Maintaining proper mobility of the cervical spine is crucial for several reasons:

  1. Nerve Impingement: The trigeminal nerve originates in the brainstem and runs through the base of the skull, passing close to the cervical spine. Any restriction or misalignment in the cervical vertebrae can lead to nerve impingement and exacerbate trigeminal neuralgia symptoms. 
  2. Blood Flow: A functionally mobile cervical spine ensures optimal blood flow to the brain and facial nerves, promoting healing and reducing inflammation around the trigeminal nerve. 
  3. Muscle Tension: A lack of mobility in the cervical spine can lead to increased muscle tension and tightness in the neck and facial muscles, further intensifying pain for trigeminal neuralgia patients.

Manual Therapy Techniques for Cervical Spine Mobility

As manual physical therapists, we use a variety of techniques to improve cervical spine mobility, including:

  • Mobilizations: Gentle, controlled movements applied to the cervical spine to improve joint mobility and reduce nerve compression.
  • Soft Tissue Release: Manual techniques such as myofascial release or trigger point therapy can help relieve muscle tension and reduce pressure on nerves.
  • Stretching and Strengthening Exercises: Specific exercises targeting the neck and shoulder muscles can improve stability and flexibility, supporting overall cervical spine health. 

Apart from addressing cervical spine mobility, manual physical therapy also focuses on correcting abnormal movement patterns that might contribute to trigeminal neuralgia symptoms. Abnormal patterns can cause compensatory movements, leading to additional stress on the facial nerves and surrounding structures. This involves looking at the rest of your spine, shoulders, and even jaw in order to get to the root of the problem. By restoring normal movement patterns, as physical therapists, we aim to promote proper alignment and alleviate strain on the trigeminal nerve. Through skilled hands-on techniques, physical therapists can help alleviate nerve compression, reduce muscle tension, and promote optimal blood flow in the affected areas. 

We also emphasize lifestyle and habit changes that may be creating these movement patterns in the first place to avoid regression. Our goal is to equip our patients with the tools they need to maintain progress and manage symptoms on their own. This leads to sustainable long-term results that allow our patients to resume their life without fear of their next flare up. By addressing both the symptoms and potential underlying causes of trigeminal neuralgia, manual physical therapy offers hope and relief to those living with this condition.

If you or someone you know suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, give our office a call today to set up a free discovery visit with one of our physical therapists. We look forward to working with you. 

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