KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Some people have excruciating pain in the face with no apparent cause. It's sometimes called the suicide disease because people who have it want to die.
Max Norman of Joplin had the sharp, shooting pain in one side of his face a few times a day to many times. He compares it to electrical shock.
"Like if you had an extension cord and somebody cut the end of it off and plugged it into a wall socket and stuck it inside my face," says Max.
Max eventually got a diagnosis -- trigeminal neuralgia.
Dr. Stephen Griffith of Saint Luke's Neuroscience Institute shows us the trigeminal nerve off the brain stem. In trigeminal neuralgia, a blood vessel is sitting on the nerve.
"Those should be separate," says Dr. Griffith.
When the vessel compresses the nerve, jolts of pain can surge through the branches of the nerve in the face.
Medication no longer relieved Max's pain. A friend happened to see a brochure about Dr. Griffith. Soon, Max was having a surgery. Behind the ear, a small hole is made in the skull.
"That allows me to sneak in along the surface of the brain to the trigeminal nerve and then insulte that nerve away from the artery," explains Dr. Griffith.
A little Teflon pad is placed between the vessel and the nerve to keep them apart. Surgery risks include damage to hearing nerves although the neurosurgeon says monitoring equipment minimizes the risk.
Max says the results of surgery were immediate and complete.
"The pain was gone and has not come back," he says.
The surgery was in November. Dr. Griffith says it's highly likely Max will never have that shocking pain again. He says there are other treatment options for patients who don't want to have surgery or cannot have it.