First Published 12 January 2011
By Laurel Garland
In 2003, When Emily was about 2 ½ years old, I remember her starting to cry at the table one day when she was eating. I thought she had bitten her tongue or her cheek. It didn’t seem like anything serious, so I just comforted her and thought nothing of it. It happened a few more times at the dinner table over the next few days, so I thought she had done it again. I checked her mouth and didn’t see anything. She was talking, but didn’t have enough words to tell me what had happened.
After several weeks, a similar incident occurred, and I reacted in the same way. Over the course of the next year or so, this happened from time to time, and I really thought she had just bitten her tongue or something. Several weeks or even months would go by in between and I would completely forget about it. After a while I started to think it must be a toothache, so when she was 3 I made an appointment with a dentist and took her in. He did a visual exam and said that it wasn’t a toothache because he would be able to see it if it was bad enough to be causing pain. I didn’t know what to think. Very soon after the appointment, the pain disappeared again and I guess I just decided it was over.
Within a few months, she started crying and putting her hand to her cheek in the bathtub. She has always loved her bath, and even loves to have water dumped over her head. She can’t get enough of the water. Looking back, I think when she started having trouble in the bathtub it was from water splashing on her face. I didn’t know it at the time and again wrote it off to a cheek bite or something. All she could tell us is that her cheek hurt. She wasn’t able to describe the pain or articulate what was happening. Again, these occurrences were extremely irregular and unpredictable, with several weeks or months in between, so I tended to forget about it when the pain went away.
I think when we really started to realize something was going on, she was close to 4 years old. The pain was becoming worse, more frequent and it was lasting longer. She started to have pain when we brushed her teeth and when we would dress and undress her. She also would have trouble sometimes if I kissed or touched her cheek. The hard part was that these “triggers” didn’t always cause pain, so it seemed like there was no pattern. I was completely confused and didn’t know what it could be. I thought again that she must have a cavity, so I took her back to the same dentist’s office. She was examined again with the same result. I was really starting to be concerned and frustrated.
At that point we decided we should take her to her pediatrician. As always, during the exam Emily was completely fine, even when the doctor would poke and prod her cheek and mouth. So, the doctor had to go strictly by my explanation. Emily still couldn’t really describe it (the pain) herself. The pediatrician examined her and recommended that we should go to an ENT because she thought Emily might have stones in her salivary glands.
At the ENT appointment, the doctor did an exam and said that she didn’t have stones in her glands. He didn’t know what else it could be, so we left without an answer. He said to come back if it got worse. I was unhappy with that recommendation because we had been dealing with this for at least a year by now. I knew it wasn’t going to just go away.
So I made another appointment with her pediatrician. This time she said that she thought Emily might be faking it to get attention. We didn’t know what to think, because we had been to 2 doctors and a dentist who all said there was nothing wrong. So, my husband and I decided that we were going to stop giving her attention when she complained about her cheek to see if that would take care of it. For several days we ignored her when she cried and even told her that there was nothing wrong with her and that her cheek didn’t hurt. It seems insane now when I look back at that, and I feel extremely guilty for not comforting her or doing anything to help her during that time. We were completely at a loss, and didn’t know what to do.
In the summer of 2004, Emily started waking up crying in the middle of the night with cheek pain. Of course we knew then, without a doubt, she was not faking it. I became extremely concerned at this point, and I decided to take her to a different dentist. This time I found a pediatric dentist and made an appointment. He did an exam, and for the first time, Emily showed pain symptoms during the exam. She cried and was inconsolable throughout the exam. I told them I wanted X-rays, and they tried, but Emily couldn’t stand to have the little film cards in her mouth. So we left with the same result. He said her teeth were fine.
I remembered that the ENT who examined her told us to come back if her pain got worse, so I made another appointment. I had pretty low expectations about this visit, because he had already told us he couldn’t find anything, but I had to do something. He did another exam and again told us there was nothing wrong that he could see.
In August of 2004, I opened up the phone book and went to the Yellow Pages to find another pediatric dentist. I just figured that until Emily’s teeth were X-rayed, I wouldn’t be satisfied. And we had nothing to lose and no other ideas. I went to the Yellow Pages and found a pediatric dentist who was near where I live. I made an appointment and we got in right away.
Before Dr. Hishaw had even examined Emily, I explained her history with cheek pain and told her about all the doctors I’d taken her to, including previous dentists. As soon as I finished our story, Dr. Hishaw said “that sounds like trigeminal neuralgia.” I had to have her repeat herself. I had never heard of it, so she gave me a brief explanation and then said that I should take Emily to a neurologist, who could evaluate her and make a diagnosis. Then she did a full exam, including X-rays, and said Emily’s teeth were fine.
I contacted Emily’s pediatrician, who referred me to a pediatric neurologist, and I made an appointment. He ordered an MRI to rule out other possible causes, but he thought it might be TN too. Emily had her MRI, which was normal, so he prescribed neurontin, an anti-seizure medication that was supposed to suppress the nerve impulses that were causing pain. He told us that pain-killers like codeine were useless against this type of pain. By then we had already figured that out, because the Tylenol with codeine that Dr. Hishaw had prescribed wasn’t helping.
We were so excited to finally have a diagnosis and thought that our problems were behind us. We didn’t realize it then, but everything was about to get 100 times worse. While Emily was on the medication, her pain got progressively worse over several weeks. The neurologist increased the dose about every 7-10 days, but it wasn’t helping.
It got so bad, that finally in October of 2004, she stopped eating, drinking and sleeping. She was in so much pain that she was screaming about every 10 minutes or so, and she had lost her voice. She was also drooling because she couldn’t stand to swallow. She sat on the couch like a zombie, afraid to move because literally any movement triggered the pain. There was no way we could brush her teeth. We could barely get her medicine down. I called the neurologist’s office, and his nurse told me to take her to urgent care. I was very skeptical, because I knew by now that TN was a rare condition and I doubted that an urgent care doctor would be able to treat it effectively.
We went to urgent care, and waited for hours to get in to see the doctor. Emily was screaming in the waiting room, but because she looked fine, I guess they didn’t think she was a priority case. When I finally got Emily into an exam room, the pain had disappeared. The doctor looked at me like I was crazy when I told her what was happening. By then, Emily was acting like herself! The doctor prescribed more Tylenol with codeine even though I told her that it hadn’t worked in the past and that her neurologist had said that it wouldn’t be effective. She also prescribed oxycontin, which is a stronger narcotic. I gave Emily the oxycontin, which didn’t work at all, except to make her even more tired and disoriented.
I started searching online to find out anything I could about TN. I found the TN Association Website and a local support group. I called the support group leader, who answered right away and talked to me for about 40 minutes about TN. He gave me loads of information about what TN is, what causes it, different treatments, etc. He also told me about a local neurosurgeon who worked with the support group and who specialized in treating TN. He got us in to see Dr. Sanan the next day. Dr. Sanan did an exam and told me that he thought Emily should try Tegretol, another anti-seizure medicine. He called Emily’s pediatric neurologist and they worked together to find the right dose for her. Tegretol is a very strong medicine that can have severe side-effects, including liver damage. Emily would have to have regular blood tests to monitor her liver function while on the medication. I got the prescription filled at about 5:30 that day. I gave Emily a dose in the car after leaving the pharmacy, and within about 30 minutes she was completely fine.
We didn’t do any celebrating yet because we thought it was entirely possible that it was just a coincidence. Emily’s pain had been coming and going randomly for close to 2 years, so we were reluctant to believe that it was over just like that. In a follow-up visit with Dr. Sanan, he explained that Tegretol did have an immediate effect, and the fact that it had worked so dramatically for Emily confirmed she did have TN.
The Tegretol worked for Emily for more than a year, but we kept having to increase the dose because her body was building a tolerance to it. We knew that medication was not a permanent solution, and continued to investigate other options. We learned about Microvascular Decompression (MVD), which is a surgery performed on the trigeminal nerve next to the brain. We were cautioned about this surgery by the pediatric neurologist who was managing Emily’s care at the time, and we decided we would put the surgery off for as long as we could.
In the fall of 2006, Emily was on the highest acceptable dose of Tegretol and her symptoms had returned. She was in her second year of kindergarten, and was having a very hard time. She was in pain much of the time, and wasn’t learning. She wasn’t reading at all after a full year of kindergarten and she had even begun to have difficulty spelling and writing her name. This is something she had been able to do before she started school. We were becoming more and more concerned about the side effects from the medication and were starting to feel desperate again. We wondered if the medication was doing more harm than good.
That fall I also attended the bi-annual TNA conference in Portland, Oregon. I was looking forward to talking to doctors from all over the world who specialize in the treatment of TN and I wanted to learn more about surgical options. Emily’s story had come to the attention of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association because of a news article done by our local paper, and a Discovery Channel show that profiled her earlier that year. At the conference, several doctors came to me to talk about her situation, including Dr. Mark Linskey from UCI Medical Center in Irvine, CA. He was very encouraging about the surgery option and urged me to consider it. He told me he had performed MVD on children before, and all were now pain free.
I called his office and made an appointment as soon as I got home, and within a month had an appointment for surgery. Dr. Linskey performed an MVD in October, 2006. It was extremely scary, but I also remember feeling a great deal of hope. For the first time in years, I felt the possibility that Emily could be “cured.” Her surgery was about 5 hours long. Dr. Linskey said her condition was one of the most severe he had seen. He showed us pictures of the clusters of veins that were wrapped around and even running through her trigeminal nerve. He was confident that the surgery was a success. She was in the hospital for three days and then had to stay in near the hospital for 2 weeks before she could return home. The surgery was 100% successful with no side effects or complications. She hasn’t felt a single twinge of pain in her cheek since she woke up in the recovery room.
As she began to recover from surgery and the medication began to leave her system, we started noticing her personality and behavior change. She wasn’t as “clumsy” as she had been. Looking back, I remember her legs being full of bruises from tripping, falling and bumping into things. I didn’t understand what the medication had been doing to her. She began to do better in school, and within about 6 months was reading above grade level. She had more energy and she became more confident in her day to day activity. Within a few months she didn’t shy away from water or her toothbrush. She began eating crunchy foods again. It didn’t bother her to drink from a straw or suck on candy or chew gum. She didn’t mind changing clothes or being kissed on the cheek anymore.
Now, 4 years later, Emily is 10 years old (she will be 11 in January 2011) and is still pain free. All she has to show for her ordeal is a three-inch scar behind her right ear and the memories of the pain. She talks about it every once in a while. She also talks about Dr. Linskey and how he “fixed her cheek.”
Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday that we were going through the nightmare of TN. It’s hard to explain the fear and panic that we experienced. For almost four years, it took over our lives. Emily suffered so much. It was hard to watch and not feel completely helpless. It took more than a year after her surgery before I could go a full day without thinking about it and worrying that it would come back.
We’re extremely lucky that Emily’s story turned out so well in the end and I wish there was a cure for everyone who suffers with this condition.