Facial pain is usually harmless and temporary; however, it can be caused by various medical conditions ranging from minor to serious. Facial pain includes pain in the face, mouth or eyes and pain radiating from other parts of the body, such as the ears or head. Most facial pain is described as stabbing, aching or cramping.
Sudden and unbearable facial pain requires prompt medical care to identify the exact cause. Tests can be performed to identify the underlying cause of facial pain. Once an official diagnosis is determined, treatment can proceed.
Causes of facial pain
Causes of facial pain range from infections to nerve damage. Depending on the cause, the duration and intensity of pain differs. Various medical conditions can cause facial pain, including but not limited to, the following:
Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) can be caused by trauma, grinding the teeth or chewing too hard. The temporomandibular joint is located on each side of the head and links the skull to the lower jawbone. The joint may pop, lock or catch, and pain may radiate to the face. Although it is possible for TMJ to resolve on its own, a health care professional may prescribe physical therapy, surgery, medication, night guards or splints.
Shingles can develop if an individual had chickenpox. The chickenpox virus lays dormant in the body and can reactivate later in life. If the virus reactivates, it is referred to as shingles [insert “Understanding Shingles” article]. The virus travels along nerve fibers to the skin and produces painful blisters. Shingles typically develops on the abdomen, back or chest; however, it can also develop on the face. A health care professional may prescribe medications to ease the pain and accelerate the healing process. Pain related to shingles can linger after the rash heals; this is referred to as postherpetic neuralgia. Shingles vaccinations are available for individuals at greater risk for developing the condition.
Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) can occur if a tumor or blood vessel places pressure on the trigeminal nerve causing it to misfire. The trigeminal nerve carries sensation from the face to the brain. Extreme burning or shock-like facial pain can occur and usually affects the lower face; however, the nose and eyes can also be affected. This type of pain can be intermittent or continuous. Trigeminal neuralgia may be treated with medications or surgery.
Occipital neuralgia develops when the occipital nerves, near the base of the skull, become inflamed or injured. Because the symptoms are similar, occipital neuralgia is often mistaken for a migraine. Pain occurs at the base of the skull, back of the head or behind the eyes and can travel to the scalp. Occipital neuralgia pain can be sharp, shock-like, stabbing, aching, burning or throbbing. Pain often increases with neck movement, and the scalp is usually tender. A health care professional may suggest heat, massage, rest or prescription medication as treatment options.
Sinusitis can cause pain in any part of the face, including the mouth and eyes. Sinus cavities are small hollow areas near the cheekbones that can become infected. Pain and pressure is usually felt near the nose and forehead and is often accompanied by colored mucus, a stuffy or runny nose, decreased sense of smell, fever and cheek pain. A health care professional may treat sinusitis with antibiotic medications and recommend rest.
Giant cell arteritis (GCA) can develop when arteries in the head or scalp become inflamed. GCA can cause extreme pain around the temples or on either side of the face. Jaw pain, fever and weight loss are also common. If not treated, blurry vision or sudden and permanent vision loss can occur. Although the exact cause is unknown, individuals experiencing GCA are normally over 50 years of age. GCA is usually treated with high doses of corticosteroids.
Migraine headaches typically cause face pain on one side of the head. Migraines can last from a few hours to several days. Many individuals experience an aura of lights or visual blind spots prior to the pain associated with a migraine. Nausea, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity and intolerance of certain smells may occur. A health care professional may suggest diet changes, sleep pattern adjustments and/or medications to treat migraines.
Cluster headaches develop suddenly and can cause severe pain on one side of the face. A cluster headache may be experienced close to the same time on a daily basis for several weeks. They normally peak within five to ten minutes. The eyes and nose often become red, inflamed and watery. Sensitivity to light, sound or smell often occurs. A health care professional may suggest treatment with oxygen, medications, medicated nasal sprays or neurostimulation.
Acute angle-closure glaucoma occurs when fluid is suddenly blocked from draining in the eye. The pressure on the optic nerve results in pain, swelling and redness of the eye. Vision changes often occur, and without treatment, vision loss is possible. A health care professional typically prescribes medication to relieve the pressure and may perform surgery to drain the blocked fluid.
A deviated septum occurs when the cartilage separating the two nasal passages becomes damaged, often from an injury or illness. Symptoms include facial pain, nosebleeds, snoring, sinus infections, stuffy nose and difficulty breathing through one nostril. A health care professional may suggest surgery in serious cases.
Mouth cancer can cause pain in the lips, gums, tongue, cheek lining, the floor of the mouth or the roof of the mouth. Pressure, swelling and sores are symptoms of mouth cancer. Tobacco use increases the risk of developing mouth cancer. A health care professional may treat mouth cancer with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.
Sialadenitis develops when the salivary glands become infected with bacteria. Pain may occur in the check or chin and may be accompanied by a lump. Fever, chills and foul-tasting pus in the mouth may follow. A health care professional is likely to prescribe antibiotic treatment.
An abscessed tooth develops when bacteria invade a tooth, the surrounding gums or the bones that connect them. The resulting infection generates pressure which causes throbbing pain in the ear or jaw. The face and gums may become swollen, tender and red. A dentist can extract the tooth or perform a root canal to eradicate the abscess.
Sudden facial pain radiating from the chest or left arm could be a sign of a heart attack. Emergency treatment is critical.