“When I think back on what I lived with for so many years, I kind of feel sorry for myself,” Elizabeth says. “I wish I had had the surgery years ago.”
In 1993, Elizabeth Losardo, then 64, and her husband Michael, had just retired from Brooklyn to Monroe Township and were ready to start living the good life—including wintering in Florida. As Elizabeth recalls, it was a normal day. She woke up and merely had an innocent yawn. The next thing she knew, she had a severe pain in her jaw.
“Initially, I thought it was my heart, so I called my nephew who is a cardiologist and he told me to go immediately for an EKG [electrocardiogram],” explains Elizabeth. While the EKG came back normal, Elizabeth said the severe, intermittent pain came back daily—sometimes for a few seconds and other times for excruciating minutes. Elizabeth describes the pain as “like having a knife thrust into your face repeatedly.”
Elizabeth sought help from her primary care physician, who referred her to a neurologist who immediately diagnosed her with trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a neuropathic disorder characterized by episodes of intense facial pain originating from the trigeminal nerve located at the base of the jaw, near the ear.
The neurologist prescribed medication, which Elizabeth says initially helped.
“The episodic pain was reduced to only a few times each week,” Elizabeth says. “At one point, I went into complete remission for about two years.”
Unfortunately, the pain did come back, and with the help of a second neurologist, Elizabeth tried new medication. The new medication again offered some relief, but only temporarily.
“I started out taking two pills a day and eventually was up to four pills a day, with horrible side effects from the medicine,” she recalls.
Elizabeth admits that the pain got to the point where she was contemplating suicide almost daily.
“The pain was so unbearable, I stopped talking on the phone, didn’t want to have company and refused to leave my home,” she says. “Even my family said my face showed the pain I was in.”
Turning to alternative medicines for relief, Elizabeth saw an acupuncturist for two years, again with only temporary relief.
“One day my neurologist said there was nothing more in her bag of tricks and that I needed to go see Mark McLaughlin, MD [board-certified neurosurgeon with Princeton Brain and Spine and on staff at CentraState Medical Center].” Prior to seeing Dr. McLaughlin, Elizabeth did her homework and knew there were options for treating her TN, and she wanted to try microvascular decompression (MVD), a procedure that Dr. McLaughlin specialized in. Dr. McLaughlin was trained by Peter Jannetta, MD, who is considered the “father” of modern microvascular decompression surgery for trigeminal neuralgia and other cranial nerve disorders. “MVD is an excellent interventional treatment for TN, and is considered to be the most effective. And, unlike other interventional treatments, it does not cause facial numbness,” Dr. McLaughlin explains. “Elizabeth presented with classic symptoms of TN and therefore was an excellent candidate for MVD.”
Elizabeth admits, “At first I said no to the surgery, but Dr. McLaughlin gave me the courage to go ahead with it. He held my hand, looked into my eyes and told me that I would be okay and would have immediate relief from the pain.”
On Aug. 6, 2014, after three months of what had become constant pain, a day that was 21 years in the making finally arrived. Elizabeth’s husband remarked that she was so nervous he was certain she’d pass out before making it into the hospital. She collected her nerves, and when she woke up following the surgery, she was pain free.
“I was weaned off my medications and several months later, I am still pain free,” Elizabeth remarks.
Now 85, Elizabeth is still adjusting to a pain-free life. She’s enjoying the simple things in life like eating on her left side, eating crunchy and hard foods, and even going out to dinner with Michael.
What Is Trigeminal Neuralgia?
Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) was formerly known as the “suicide disease” because it is believed to be among the most painful of medical conditions. In about 10 percent of all cases of TN, the pain is located on both sides of the face.
Symptoms include episodes of intense facial pain, similar to an electric shock, that last from a few seconds to several minutes or hours. In some cases, it may be a more constant, aching, burning type of pain.
The episodes of pain are sometimes triggered by a soft touch, eating, drinking, shaving, applying makeup or brushing teeth. Even exposure to wind can cause an attack.
TN attacks can get progressively worse with time, and the periods of relief from pain can become shorter. Medications to treat TN can become less effective over time. TN patients will often experience depression (including suicidal ideation) and anxiety, and withdraw from social activities.