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Pain. 1987 Oct;31(1):23-33.

Idiopathic trigeminal neuralgia: sensory features and pain mechanisms.

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Neurobiology and Anesthesiology Branch, National Institute of Dental Research, Bethesda, MD 20892.


We present a case report of a patient with the typical sensory features of idiopathic trigeminal neuralgia (ITN). The pain was elicited by innocuous stimuli, summated with repeated stimulation, radiated outside the stimulus zone, referred to a distant site, persisted beyond the period of stimulation, and exhibited a variable refractory period. Unusual sensory features included multiple trigger zones that changed over time and involved all 3 trigeminal divisions. Our sensory evaluation indicated that the pain was evoked by repetitive activation of rapidly adapting, A beta, low-threshold mechanoreceptive afferents. However, activation of such mechanoreceptive afferents alone never produces pain in normal situations and often leads to a suppression of pain responsivity. The findings support the idea that the mechanism of pain in ITN involves pathophysiological mechanisms in the central nervous system. Our hypothesis is that structural and functional changes in the trigeminal system result in an alteration in the receptive field organization of wide-dynamic-range (WDR) neurons. There appears to be an alteration in the surround inhibition mechanism of these neurons leading to an expansion of their touch receptive fields. This results in touch stimuli producing activity in WDR neurons that mimics the activity produced under normal conditions by noxious stimuli. Since WDR neurons participate in the encoding of the perceived intensity of noxious stimuli, a series of punctate tactile stimuli are now perceived as localized, pin-prick or electric shock-like sensations. Similar pathophysiological mechanisms may explain, in part, the pain of peripheral neuropathies associated with postherpetic neuralgia, diabetes and causalgia.

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