I get a surprisingly high number of questions about trigeminal neuralgia asking if there is a role for the amino acids GABA or tryptophan to help ease some of the nerve and associated face pain. It’s surprising because trigeminal neuralgia is considered a rare neurological disorder.
Nerve pain is not my area of expertise (anxiety is), and because anxiety and depression is common in this population, there are very likely similar underlying causes (more on that below). The targeted individual amino acids that we use for anxiety, also help to ease pain, so I’m sharing some of what I know in case it helps you or a loved one.
Read on to learn more about this condition and GABA, tryptophan, DPA, acupuncture, St. John’s Wort, Lyme disease, herpes and B vitamins.
About trigeminal neuralgia and the incidence
The NIH fact sheet defines trigeminal neuralgia (TN) as
a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal or 5th cranial nerve, one of the most widely distributed nerves in the head. TN is a form of neuropathic pain (pain associated with nerve injury or nerve lesion.) The typical or “classic” form of the disorder (called “Type 1” or TN1) causes extreme, sporadic, sudden burning or shock-like facial pain that lasts anywhere from a few seconds to as long as two minutes per episode. These attacks can occur in quick succession, in volleys lasting as long as two hours. The “atypical” form of the disorder (called “Type 2” or TN2), is characterized by constant aching, burning, stabbing pain of somewhat lower intensity than Type 1. Both forms of pain may occur in the same person, sometimes at the same time. The intensity of pain can be physically and mentally incapacitating.
The incidence of new cases is approximately 12 per 100,000 people per year and women are impacted more than men.
A number of studies show anxiety, depression and insomnia are common when someone has trigeminal neuralgia. The question is this – is the pain causing the anxiety, depression and insomnia OR are there common underlying physiological causes for both. It’s likely a combination of both especially when it comes to idiopathic trigeminal neuralgia i.e. when there is no known cause. Known causes include head injury, multiple sclerosis, dental procedures, tumors and cysts.
By using some of the approaches outlined below, we may see pain relief and improved mood, less severe anxiety and better sleep.
When to consider GABA and serotonin support
There is no research on either GABA or tryptophan/5-HTP helping with symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia, however medications that work on both GABA and serotonin are typically prescribed for trigeminal nerve pain. For this reason I would consider a trial of GABA and/or tryptophan (or 5-HTP if other low GABA physical anxiety symptoms and low serotonin worry-type anxiety symptoms are also present. You can find the symptoms list here.
There is research-based and clinical evidence that GABA and serotonin support help with other types of pain:
- Tryptophan ends TMJ pain, headaches and worry, and improves mood and sleep: a success story
- GABA lozenge relieves excruciating pelvic floor/rectal pain and spasms within 30 seconds: a solution for proctalgia fugax
Both help with the anxiety, low mood and insomnia that is often present with pain conditions like this.
St. John’s Wort for nerve pain and mood
In one case report, Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort) as a possible therapeutic alternative for the management of trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a 53-year-old Hispanic female patient with a history of trigeminal neuralgia used an over-the-counter preparation of St. John’s Wort and found it relieved her pain completely.
St. John’s Wort is a herb that is primarily “used for depression but also is used for rheumatism, gastroenteritis, headache and neuralgias. ” This case report is one of many studies on this herb and trigeminal neuralgia and other neuralgias (nerve pain).
It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects and also supports serotonin and GABA production which further supports the above recommendations to trial the amino acids. GABA and tryptophan would also be safe options if St. John’s Wort can’t be used as in the case of blood thinners, the birth control pill and other medications
Pain relief with endorphin support: acupuncture and DPA
Acupuncture offers pain relief via endorphin boosting and can be an option for the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, also offering relief for the “secondary myofascial pain associated with it.”
DPA (d-phenylalanine) is an endorphin-boosting amino acid that may also offer some pain relief. It can also be used to wean off prescription pain medication and improve sleep.
Other research-based pain-relief approaches for trigeminal neuralgia
There are some less recognized approaches too:
- Photobiomodulation on trigeminal neuralgia: systematic review “Photobiomodulation appears to be as effective as conventional therapies” that include medications and surgery and yet without the side-effects. Photobiomodulation, also known as red light therapy, is also beneficial for anxiety and mood regulation.
- Palmitoylethanolamide and Its Formulations on Management of Peripheral Neuropathic Pain – Palmitoylethanolamide (shortened to PEA) “has anti-inflammatory and anti-hyperalgesic effects, due to the down-regulation of activation of mast cells”
- Therapeutic potential of cannabinoids in trigeminal neuralgia – there is growing evidence that “cannabinoids may be effective in alleviating neuropathic pain and hyperalgesia [extreme pain sensitivity]” via “inhibiting neuronal transmission in pain pathways.”
All of the above can also improve mood and insomnia and reduce anxiety too.
Other factors to consider: B vitamins, Lyme disease, herpes and gluten
As with any condition, a full functional medicine work up should be done to rule out and/or address gluten issues, low vitamin B6/B1/B12, and even herpes zoster and Lyme disease as a root cause (or contributing factor).
Current approaches and emerging interventions – disappointing for a 2021 paper
I was excited to read the title of this paper, Trigeminal Neuralgia: Current Approaches and Emerging Interventions, published late this year. The authors share that it “summarizes over 150 years of collective clinical experience in the medical and surgical treatment of trigeminal neuralgia.”
What is disappointing is there is no mention of any of the approaches listed in this blog. It’s published by neurosurgeons so it is understandable that they would say: “The first-line treatment remains anticonvulsant medical therapy. Patients who fail this have a range of surgical options available to them.”
Medications and/or surgical options may work well for you but if not, you need to know there are other options. You may also be looking for a medication-free or non-invasive approach.
Keep in mind that this is what you’ll be offered unless you work with a functional medicine practitioner.
I do agree with and am encouraged by these statements:
- What is increasingly clear is that there is no catch-all medical intervention that is effective for all patients with trigeminal neuralgia, likely reflective of the fact that it is likely a heterogenous group of disorders that jointly manifests in facial pain.
- Ultimately, elucidation of the molecular mechanisms underlying trigeminal neuralgia will pave the way for novel, more effective and less invasive therapies.
Complementary approaches: NIH fact sheet
What is encouraging is that the NIH fact sheet I link to above, does mention low-impact exercise, yoga, creative visualization, aromatherapy and meditation.
Other than the standard medications (carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, topiramate, gabapentin, pregabalin, clonazepam, phenytoin, lamotrigine and valproic acid and tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline or nortriptyline) and surgical options they do also mention acupuncture, chiropractic, biofeedback and nutrients.
Botox is listed too but I have concerns about this approach.
This blog is not intended to be a comprehensive approach for pain relief for trigeminal neuralgia but rather some options you can consider and explore with your practitioner – especially when you also have anxiety, depression and insomnia too.
Resources if you are new to using tryptophan/5-HTP, GABA and DPA as supplements
If you are new to using the amino acids as supplements, here is the Amino Acids Mood Questionnaire from The Antianxiety Food Solution (you can see the low serotonin, low GABA and low endorphin symptoms) and a brief overview here: Anxiety and targeted individual amino acid supplements: a summary.
If you suspect low levels of any of the neurotransmitters and do not yet have my book, The Antianxiety Food Solution – How the Foods You Eat Can Help You Calm Your Anxious Mind, Improve Your Mood, and End Cravings, I highly recommend getting it and reading it before jumping in and using amino acids so you are knowledgeable. And be sure to share it with the team you or your loved one is working with.
The book doesn’t include product names (per the publisher’s request) so this blog, The Antianxiety Food Solution Amino Acid and Pyroluria Supplements, lists the amino acid products that I use with my individual clients and those in my group programs.
Has any of the above approaches helped you or your loved one? If not, what has helped you?
What conventional treatment have you had and did it help? Were you offered any of the above non-medication and non-surgical treatment approaches?
If you’re a practitioner, has any of this helped? Please share your treatment approaches too.
Feel free to ask your questions here too.