Optional treatment for painful face problem

May 29, 2013 2:31:49 PM PDT
There's a painful nerve condition on the face that can be so severe that sufferers actually may consider suicide. When medications don't work, there's a treatment that can.

Imagine having attacks of pain off and on during the day that are caused by simply shaving in the morning, by a soft breeze on the cheek or a kiss. It's called trigeminal neuralgia. The trigeminal nerve carries sensation to all parts of the face. When it's compressed, it carries pain. The condition may respond to drugs, but when it doesn't, there's the gamma knife.

"It was excruciating, when they day pain that stops you in your tracks this is it. I couldn't' swallow, the saliva drooled out of my mouth cause i couldn't move my jaw," Theckla Martino said.

Pain so bad, some with it think of suicide.

"I thought about it once. Yeah, that's how bad it is," Martino said.

But the gamma knife can make the pain go away - pain that's coming from deep in the brain. A blood vessel is pressing on the trigeminal nerve where it comes off the brain stem.

When you hear the words gamma knife you think of a scalpel and operating room, but the gamma knife works by radiation.

A metal frame screwed onto the skull after numbing the skin holds the head absolutely still. When the patient is in the machine, 200 beams of radiation converge painlessly on the nerve at its base, and without affecting the surrounding healthy brain.

"The idea is to damage just the nerves that are involved, while keeping the nerves that are good functionally intact," Dr. Anthony D'Ambrosio of Valley Hospital Paramus said.

Andrew Gallegan is having the gamma knife today. He'd tried drugs at first, but they affected all the nerves in the brain.

"It felt like I was drunk, I'm not a drinker. I don't even drink. If I got up to walk, I would go to the side. When I talked - you know how a drunk talks? Same way," he said.

So gamma knife became an option for him. Theckla had it mid-last year. She's pain-free and almost off medication.

"You feel like you have your life back again. And as of right now, I don't even think about it anymore," she said.

Side effects can include some temporary numbness on the side of the face. About 40% of patients with good results may have a return of symptoms. The solution is another gamma knife procedure.