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November 28, 2018

Facial Pain Is More Than Meets the Eye

By SharingMayoClinic

Nancy Hannafin suffered from terrible pain on one side of her face for several years. Finally, a visit to her optometrist led to a breakthrough. Nerve pain was causing the problem, and brain surgery at Mayo Clinic fixed it.

Nancy Hannafin suffered from terrible pain on one side of her face for several years. Finally, a visit to her optometrist led to a breakthrough. Nerve pain was causing the problem, and brain surgery at Mayo Clinic fixed it.


Nancy Hannafin makes a point of appreciating the little things in life: birds singing, flowers blooming, sun shining. But for a long time, crippling pain prevented her from enjoying those small pleasures.

"I had nerve pain in my face, ear and teeth, and it was horrific," says Nancy. "There was no medication that could help it. It wouldn't touch it. I went for two years trying to find out what it was."

Nancy explained her excruciating pain to dentists, orthodontists and other doctors in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where she lives — all to no avail. "And we have some excellent doctors here," she adds.

Nancy describes the pain as how it would feel "if a dentist drilled in your mouth without anesthetic." The sporadic, debilitating pain disrupted her life. It kept her from sleeping, and it hurt to chew.

"You're about ready to go crazy because you know something's going on," Nancy says. "The side of my face was getting numb. The pain went through my eyes, through my forehead, down the back of my head into my teeth, and nobody knew what it was."

Finally, Jaclyn Morin, O.D., an optometrist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, was able to help unlock the mystery.

Finding the source

When Nancy's right eye became swollen, sore and irritated, she took her unusual symptoms to Dr. Morin. Nancy's eye exam appeared normal, but Dr. Morin suspected there was more to be discovered.

"The high level of pain she was experiencing on the right side of her face certainly was concerning to me," Dr. Morin says. "I referred Nancy to our Neurology Department."

"She got the appointment for me there, and bingo, they found out what it was," Nancy says.

David Nye, M.D., a Mayo Clinic Health System neurologist, identified Nancy's debilitating condition as suspected trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain disorder affecting the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from the face to the brain.


"It was a blessing. I could not live much longer with that horrific pain."

Nancy Hannafin

Dr. Nye prescribed medication as the first line of treatment. After one medication caused low blood sodium and two others were ineffective, Dr. Nye referred Nancy to colleagues at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus to consider surgical treatment.

"After two years of wrestling with this, they were finally able to tell me exactly what it was," Nancy says. "My doctor explained that the padding of the nerves in an area near my jaw was worn away, and the blood vessel was thumping on those nerves, and that's why it hurt so much."

Relieving the pain

To get rid of the pain for good, Nancy underwent a brain surgery in November 2017 called microvascular decompression surgery. The procedure was led by Fredric Meyer, M.D., a Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon.

"Dr. Meyer said he's done quite a few of those surgeries, and, by gosh, if they didn't fix it," Nancy says. "It was a blessing. I could not live much longer with that horrific pain."

The surgery relieved the abnormal compression of Nancy's cranial nerves, easing her discomfort dramatically.

"I'm still healing. But immediately, that pain was diminished," says Nancy. "It was gone. I couldn't believe I was free from pain. I have never been so happy in my life."

She says she can't express enough gratitude for her medical team. "If I couldn't have had the team of wonderful doctors working together that I had, I would never have made it," Nancy says.


"Nancy's experience makes me proud to be part of an organization that provides a multidisciplinary approach to health care to meet the needs of our patients."

Jaclyn Morin, O.D.

Dr. Morin, who has been following Nancy as a patient for more than two years, says she finds it rewarding to hear about positive patient outcomes and experiences such as Nancy's.

"As health care providers, we want our patients to receive the best care — address their concerns and alleviate their symptoms whenever possible," Dr. Morin says. "Nancy's experience makes me proud to be part of an organization that provides a multidisciplinary approach to health care to meet the needs of our patients."

Nancy hopes that by sharing her story, she will help raise awareness of her condition for others struggling with similar symptoms.

"I hope this can help somebody who may be reading this find out and get help for themselves," she says. "Maybe if I would have read about this type of thing, I could have gotten help sooner. I just want to send on the message."

Nancy says now she's enjoying her pain-free days to the fullest.

"I'm going to smile," she says. "I'm going to look at the sun. I'm going to smell the flowers. I'm going to enjoy what I have. I'm doing the best I can, and what more could I ask for?"

Note: A version of this story was published previously in Hometown Health.


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Tags: Dr. David Nye, Dr. Fredric Meyer, Dr. Jaclyn Morin, Mayo Clinic Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Neurology & Neurosurgery, Trigeminal Neuralgia

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