Cutting Facial Pain

FRESNO, Calif.

For Claire Bush, a single brush of makeup used to be enough to send a searing jolt of pain into the right side of her face.

"It burns like fire. It's like electricity at the same time. Just too scary. You didn't want to set it off," Claire Bush, trigeminal neuralgia patient told Ivanhoe.

For 15 years, the slightest touch could trigger excruciating pain. No medication helped.

"I went to a support group because I was going to kill myself." Bush added.

It's called trigeminal neuralgia -- a disorder of the nerve that supplies sensation to the face.

Barrow's neurologist doctor, Andrew Shetter, offered an answer that changed Bush's life -- a 30-minute treatment that focuses X-ray beams on the nerve -- literally injuring it to stop the pain.

"The long-term results with the gamma knife are that about 50 percent of the patients will become pain-free, off medicines long-term. That's with five and 10year follow-ups," Andrew G. Shetter, M.D., Chairman, Division of Functional and Stereotactic Neurosurgery at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, said.

Pain can also be caused by compression of the nerve itself. In a second, less-invasive procedure, called micro-vascular decompression, Dr. Shetter was able to move a blood vessel that was putting painful pressure on the nerve. "That's the optimal result, no pain, Dr. Shetter said.

Now, Bush is virtually pain-free -- doing things she was afraid to do before. After 15 years of misery, she finally feels like herself again.

"Oh, I'm functioning again. I have my life back," Bush concluded.

Many patients with trigeminal neuralgia can be helped with medication. If meds are ineffective or if side effects become a problem, surgery can be a life-changing event. Neurologists say one of the advantages of both gamma knife radio-surgery and micro-vascular decompression is their ability to stop trigeminal neuralgia with less likelihood of producing facial numbness than previous techniques.

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marsha Hitchcock at

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