Pathophysiology of trigeminal neuralgia: the ignition hypothesis

Clin J Pain. 2002 Jan-Feb;18(1):4-13. doi: 10.1097/00002508-200201000-00002.


There are no satisfactory animal models of trigeminal neuralgia, and it is difficult to obtain essential data from patients. However, trigeminal neuralgia presents with such idiosyncratic signs and symptoms, and responds to so distinctive a set of therapeutic modalities, that scientific deduction can be used to generate likely hypotheses. The ignition hypothesis of trigeminal neuralgia is based on recent advances in the understanding of abnormal electrical behavior in injured sensory neurons, and new histopathologic observations of biopsy specimens from patients with trigeminal neuralgia who are undergoing microvascular decompression surgery. According to the hypothesis, trigeminal neuralgia results from specific abnormalities of trigeminal afferent neurons in the trigeminal root or ganglion. Injury renders axons and axotomized somata hyperexcitable. The hyperexcitable afferents, in turn, give rise to pain paroxysms as a result of synchronized afterdischarge activity. The ignition hypothesis accounts for the major positive and negative signs and symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia, for its pathogenesis, and for the efficacy of treatment modalities. Proof, however, awaits the availability of key experimental data that can only be obtained from patients with trigeminal neuralgia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Compression Syndromes / complications
  • Nerve Compression Syndromes / pathology
  • Trigeminal Ganglion / pathology
  • Trigeminal Nerve
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia / etiology
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia / physiopathology*
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia / therapy