Skip Navigation LinksHome > March 2014 - Volume 10 - Issue > A Review of Percutaneous Treatments for Trigeminal Neuralgia
doi: 10.1227/NEU.00000000000001687
Operative Technique: Editor's Choice

A Review of Percutaneous Treatments for Trigeminal Neuralgia

Cheng, Jason S. MD*; Lim, Daniel A. MD, PhD*,‡,§; Chang, Edward F. MD*; Barbaro, Nicholas M. MD

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Author Information

*Department of Neurological Surgery,

Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, and

§Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California;

Department of Neurological Surgery, Indiana University School of Medicine, and Goodman Campbell Brain and Spine, Indianapolis, Indiana

Correspondence: Jason S. Cheng, MD, University of California, San Francisco, Department of Neurological Surgery, 505 Parnassus Ave, M779, San Francisco, CA 94143. E-mail:

Received February 25, 2013

Accepted September 06, 2013

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BACKGROUND: Common treatments for trigeminal neuralgia include percutaneous techniques, microvascular decompression, and Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Although microvascular decompression is considered the gold standard for treatment, percutaneous techniques remain an effective option for select patients.

OBJECTIVE: To review the historical development, advantages, and limitations of the most common percutaneous procedures for trigeminal neuralgia: balloon compression (BC), glycerol rhizotomy (GR), and radiofrequency thermocoagulation (RF).

METHODS: Publications reporting clinical outcomes after BC, GR, and RF were reviewed and included. Operative technique was based on the experience of the primary surgeon and senior author.

RESULTS: All 3 percutaneous techniques (BC, GR, and RF) provide effective pain relief but differ in method and specificity of nerve injury. BC selectively injures larger pain fibers while sparing small fibers and does not require an awake, cooperative patient. Pain control rates up to 91% at 6 months and 66% at 3 years have been reported. RF allows somatotopic nerve mapping and selective division lesioning and provides pain relief in up to 97% of patients initially and 58% at 5 years. Multiple treatments improve outcomes but carry significant morbidity risk. GR offers similar pain-free outcomes of 90% at 6 months and 54% at 3 years but with higher complication rates (25% vs 16%) compared with BC. Advantages of percutaneous techniques include shorter procedure duration, minimal anesthesia risk, and in the case of GR and RF, immediate patient feedback.

CONCLUSION: Percutaneous treatments for trigeminal neuralgia remain safe, simple, and effective for achieving good pain control while minimizing procedural risk.

ABBREVIATIONS: BC, balloon compression

GR, glycerol rhizotomy

MS, multiple sclerosis

MVD, microvascular decompression

RF, radiofrequency thermocoagulation

TN, trigeminal neuralgia

Commonly performed percutaneous treatments for trigeminal neuralgia (TN) include balloon compression (BC), glycerol rhizotomy (GR), and radiofrequency thermocoagulation (RF). All of these procedures generally show effective initial pain relief and are relatively simple to perform. In all 3 treatments, pain relief derives from directed injury to the pain fibers in the trigeminal nerve. However, they differ in their selectivity of trigeminal divisions and type of injury inflicted. BC and GR are less division selective, whereas RF allows a degree of dermatomal mapping before lesioning. On the other hand, BC is thought to selectively injure medium and large myelinated pain fibers while sparing small fibers.1,2 This selectivity may be especially useful in patients with first-division pain in whom sparing of the corneal reflex is an important concern.

Procedurally, all 3 techniques are generally safe and straightforward to perform in the operating room. BC does not require patient interaction during the procedure and is typically performed under general anesthesia for patient comfort. GR and RF require patient cooperation and use short-acting agents. One potential complication intraoperatively is the trigeminal depressor response on penetration of the foramen ovale. This response is reported much more often in the BC procedure than in the other techniques.3 The resulting hypotension and bradycardia are transient but may be significant and require administration of atropine or the use of transcutaneous pacing.

Outcomes and rates of pain relief are generally good to excellent, although recurrence rates are significant, especially compared with reported rates in other surgical procedures for TN.4,5 Efforts to identify predictors for long-term treatment success have been slow, and to date, few factors have been identified that hold up in repeated studies. One factor that has been identified is the character of the pain, whether it is typical or atypical. Typical TN is classically defined by 4 characteristics: lancinating and electric pain in 1 or more trigeminal divisions, defined trigger points, defined triggers, and memorable onset of TN. Patients with atypical TN are those without definite trigger points, with intermittent or persistent pain, with concurrent numbness of dysesthesia, and with other comorbidities, including multiple sclerosis (MS) and post-herpetic neuralgia. In all studies comparing typical and atypical TN, atypical symptoms were a negative predictor of long-term treatment efficacy across all treatment modalities, including RF, GR, and stereotactic radiosurgery.6-9 In particular, those patients with a dual diagnosis of MS and TN have higher recurrence rates and require more treatments compared with even the most refractory TN patients without MS.10,11

Ultimately, the decisions of whether to use a percutaneous procedure and which percutaneous treatment to pursue are governed by many factors, including which trigeminal divisions are involved, whether the pain is typical or atypical, and the success of prior treatments. Complicating the decision is a medical literature comprising mostly retrospective cohort studies that make definitive comparisons between treatments challenging. In a review by Lopez et al,12 the authors highlight some of the deficiencies in reporting TN, including varied nomenclature in characterizing TN symptoms, variations in procedural technique, and lack of randomized controlled trials directly comparing each modality. To increase standardization in reporting, Burchiel13 developed a modification of a classification system for TN based on the characteristics of the facial pain, and the Barrow Neurological Institute developed a pain scale to standardize the evaluation of pain relief postoperatively.14 The hope is that these developments will continue to improve the consistency and quality of reporting in the medical literature and pave the way for new randomized controlled studies to effectively assess outcomes.

Until then, the percutaneous treatments for TN remain safe, effective, and simple procedures that offer excellent outcomes in the majority of patients.

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A PubMed search of the clinical literature for publications describing techniques and outcomes after percutaneous treatments for TN was conducted from 1952 to 2013. Only English-language articles with the search term trigeminal neuralgia and at least 1 of the following key words were included: balloon compression, glycerol rhizotomy, or radiofrequency thermocoagulation. Additional search criteria included follow-up of > 1 year. This produced 186 unique publications for inclusion and analysis.

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Balloon Compression
Brief History

Percutaneous BC originated from the early work of Shelden and Pudenz in the 1950s, although their initial intent was to decompress the ganglion.3 In 1952, Taarnh

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j15 decompressed the posterior gasserian ganglion in 10 patients via a subtemporal approach and reported excellent results. Continued work by Shelden, Pudenz, Taarnh

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j, and others led to the hypothesis that operative trauma rather than decompression per se likely caused the pain relief. Shelden’s technique of rubbing the posterior trigeminal root behind the ganglion led to the development of nerve compression therapies.16 However, it was not until 1983 that Mullan and Lichtor adapted the work of their predecessors to develop percutaneous BC after recognizing that postoperative facial numbness correlated with better pain relief.17,18 In 1996, Brown et al1 modified the Mullan and Lichtor technique18 and advocated use of a blunt stylet to minimize vascular injury.

Animal models of trigeminal compression by Bennett and Lunsford37 in rabbits found that nerve compression preferentially injured the medium and large myelinated pain fibers, and work by Brown et al1 and others showed that this led to disruption of the ephaptic transmission of pain.2 Preservation of the small myelinated and unmyelinated fibers proved particularly beneficial in patients with first-division symptoms in whom damage to the corneal reflex remained a significant morbidity. In its present form, percutaneous BC remains an effective treatment for TN. The ability to reliably spare important functions such as the corneal reflex remains to be shown in a large clinical trial.

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Because an awake or cooperative patient is not required, BC is generally performed under general anesthesia, although intravenous anesthesia combined with local anesthesia at the ganglion level has also been reported.19,20 After induction of anesthesia, a transcutaneous or transesophageal pacemaker is established and tested in anticipation of stimulating the trigeminal depressor response. These transient episodes of bradycardia and hypotension may be significant and occur on engagement of the foramen ovale with the stylet and during balloon inflation.21,22 Atropine is typically not administered to allow monitoring of trigeminal compression. Visual confirmation of needle and balloon placement during the procedure is accomplished with fluoroscopy.

The patient is positioned supine with a neck roll to achieve 15° of extension. The initial landmarks include a skin insertion point 2.5 cm lateral to the corner of the mouth and a trajectory toward a point in line with the medial ipsilateral pupil and 2.5 cm anterior to the external auditory canal. A 14-gauge needle is inserted along the target trajectory and advanced to 1 cm behind the posterior clinoid along the angle of the clivus. Härtel guidelines and lateral view fluoroscopy aid in positioning a 14-gauge needle to just outside the foramen ovale. Figure 1 illustrates the trajectory and insertion technique using these landmarks. The foramen ovale is then entered and confirmed with either return of cerebrospinal fluid or via fluoroscopy, as shown in Figure 2. Engagement of the foramen frequently elicits a trigeminal depressor response and contraction of the masseter and pterygoid muscles.22

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Figure 2
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Once the needle reaches the skull base, the fluoroscope is positioned for a submental view to provide direct visualization of the foramen ovale. A thin K-wire stylet is passed into the needle and positioned at the entrance to the Meckel cave. The needle is subsequently removed, and a properly sized stylet and blunt cannula are passed over the K wire. Next, the K wire is removed, and the stylet and cannula are advanced into the foramen ovale using fluoroscopic guidance in the anterior-posterior plane. Centering the petrous ridge in the radiographic image provides the optimal visualization. The inner stylet is then removed, and a 4-Fogarty embolectomy catheter is passed with its tip in the porous trigeminus along the edge of the petrous bone and dorsal to the Meckel cave. Placing the catheter in the center of the porous targets second-division or multidivision pain. Lateral placement more effectively treats third-division pain, and medial placement isolates the first division. A lateral view confirms proper localization. The balloon is inflated with iohexol to a pressure of approximately 1000 to 1200 mm Hg for 60 to 90 seconds. A second trigeminal depressor response may be seen at this time. Classically, the balloon attains a desirable pear shape once fully inflated, bounded inferiorly by the petrous bone and superiorly by the dural edge. In the event that the balloon does not attain the desired pear shape or pressure, a larger balloon may be used during the same or subsequent procedures. Accurately recording the balloon size, location, and shape provides data for planning subsequent treatments if necessary. After the desired compression, the cannula and balloon catheter are removed, and pressure is held at the skin puncture site.

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BC offers excellent initial pain relief, with rates as high as 94% in 1 study of 50 patients by Brown et al.23 Actuarial rates of complete pain relief were 91% and 69% at 6 months and 3 years, respectively, and others have reported similar rates of pain relief.19,24-27 The procedure may be advantageous in patients with first-division pain, given the reports of selective sparing of the small fibers carrying the corneal reflex.23 However, it is not without significant limitations. Patients unable to tolerate general anesthesia or those with significant cardiac histories are generally poor candidates. Dysesthesia rates vary from 10% to 20% in the reported literature, and severe numbness occurs in approximately 20% of patients.4,28,29 Masseter weakness has also been reported but typically resolves within 12 months.4 Meningitis (2.6%) and cranial nerve deficits (1.5%) are less common.4,23 Recurrence rates are high (average, 26% with a mean time to recurrence of 18 months) compared with short-term recurrence rates reported for other TN surgical procedures.23

There are several possible explanations for why the procedure might not work initially or why pain may recur. First, the size of the Meckel cave varies significantly between patients, and a successful outcome depends heavily on the relative size of Meckel cave and the balloon.30 In patients with large Meckel caves, even the largest standard balloon may not produce sufficient compression to achieve a therapeutic outcome. To address this limitation, Goerrs and colleagues31 have designed and tested a series of larger cannulas and several balloon approaches to achieve better compression in these patients. Initial studies reveal significantly improved compression pressures and balloon shapes with the modified approaches, although a detailed outcomes report remains to be published. A second variable requiring further investigation involves the pressure of BC. Higher pressures are associated with higher rates of dysesthesia, severe numbness, and masseter weakness, whereas lower pressures often produce little pain relief and high rates of recurrence.32,33 Brown and Pilitsis34 used continuous balloon pressure monitoring in an attempt to quantify the preferred pressure and compression times to maximize pain relief while minimizing ill effects. They found that a target compression pressure between 750 and 1250 mm Hg for 1.15 minutes had the greatest efficacy in their retrospective study of 56 patients. Compression time is a third variable that affects pain relief, and treatments ranging from 1 to 7 minutes have been reported, with the degree of sensory loss directly correlated to the length of treatment.24,35 Furthermore, Montano et al36 examined additional prognostic factors for determining the efficacy of BC in patients with MS. Significant factors included pain in only 1 division, the absence of prior interventions, a compression time of < 5 minutes, and a pear-shaped balloon.

Despite its high recurrence rates and the inability to control the degree of numbness, BC may offer advantages over GR or RF: It may be performed under general anesthesia, which optimizes patient comfort; it does not require a cooperative patient; and it is selective for large and medium myelinated fibers and may preserve the small fibers carrying the cornea reflex. BC thus remains an effective treatment for TN.

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Glycerol Rhizotomy
Brief History

GR developed as a chance finding in 1981 when Häkanson and colleagues were working to pioneer use of stereotactic gamma radiation for TN. They used a glycerol carrier to inject tantalum dust into the trigeminal cistern and discovered that injection of the medium alone caused relief from pain.37,38 Further studies found this likely to be due to demyelination and axonal fragmentation.39,40 Since its development, the technique has remained relatively unchanged with only minor modifications.

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GR does not require an awake patient; thus, deeper anesthesia may be used for patient comfort. Similar to the other procedures described, a trigeminal depressor response is seen in up to 20% of patients during either penetration of the foramen ovale or injection of glycerol. Consequently, atropine may be either preadministrated or injected at the first sign of bradycardia. The patient is positioned supine on the operating table so that fluoroscopic imaging is possible. Fluoroscopy is placed in the anterior-posterior plane, and the head is positioned so that the petrous ridge is level with the inferior orbital rim. The needle entry point and trajectory to enter the foramen ovale remain identical to those in the procedure described previously for BC. However, a 20-gauge needle is used for GR. Once the needle is correctly positioned, the patient is elevated to the sitting position. A contrast cisternogram is performed with iohexol to assess the volume of the trigeminal cistern and to determine the appropriate volume of glycerol. Expected volumes range from 0.25 to 0.4 mL. Drainage of contrast may be via passive flow out of the cistern or by returning the patient to the supine position. The injection of glycerol is then performed with the patient in a sitting position. For multidivision pain, the full volume of glycerol is injected. For first-division pain, glycerol is injected before the complete drainage of contrast material. Glycerol is relatively less dense than contrast and thus will rise and layer above the contrast, selectively treating the first division. Similarly for isolating third-division pain, only one-third of the cisternal volume of glycerol is used. After injection, the needle is removed, and the patient remains in the sitting position for 2 hours to prevent leakage of glycerol into the posterior fossa. Afterward, the patient may be discharged home if stable or observed in the hospital overnight.

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Initial pain relief was > 90% in 1 recent study of 3370 patients.41 Complete pain relief at 6 months and 3 years ranges from 78% to 88% and 53% to 54%, respectively.7,42 Commonly reported complications from GR include dysesthesias (average, 8.3%), corneal numbness (average, 8.1%), and masseter weakness (average, 3.1%).4,7,42-47 Herpes labialis has also been reported to be as high as 12%.40 In a study by Pollock,40 the only statistically significant predictor of positive treatment outcome was pain during the glycerol injection (P < .01, univariate analysis). A multivariate analysis in the same study found that facial pain during injection correlated with good pain outcome (relative risk = 1.02; 95% confidence interval, 0.26–1.77; P < .01), whereas constant facial pain predicted a poor prognosis (relative risk = 1.13; 95% confidence interval, 0.06–2.20; P = .04).

Similar to other studies, pain relief correlates with degree of numbness, although pain relief without sensory disturbance is frequently touted by proponents of GR. In a study of 112 patients by Lunsford and Bennet,38 23% of patients had altered facial sensation postoperatively, whereas additional studies reported rates as high as 49% and 53%.40,48 In fact, some experts such as Burchiel49 have found that the success of GR depends on some degree of sensory loss.

Compared with RF, GR offers similar actuarial rates of pain relief (24.8% vs 29.2%) with similar complication rates. Compared with BC, however, GR had higher complication rates (24.8% vs 16.1%) in 1 study and lower complication rates in another (11% vs 26%), with similar pain relief outcomes in both.4,50 Pain recurrence rates up to 35% have been reported, with the majority (21%) occurring within 5 years of the initial procedure.41 In 1 study, repeat GR provided pain-free relief without medications of 79% at 25 months, with prior successful GR being a positive predictor of repeat success.51

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Radiofrequency Thermocoagulation
Brief History

Radiofrequency lesioning was first developed in 1913 by Réthi with attempts to electrocoagulate the trigeminal nerve and gasserian ganglion rootlets. However, it was not until 1975 that Sweet52 pioneered the use of thermocoagulation to target the trigeminal rootlets and the procedure was shown to be effective for pain relief. The initial use of this technique resulted in a significant percentage of patients with dysesthesias, which dampened enthusiasm for widespread use. Further research led to the development of additional improvements to minimize unwanted side effects. These included temperature monitoring, use of short-acting anesthetic agents, and electric stimulation with awake-patient feedback.53 Further refinements by Nugent54 added the use of a finer cordotomy electrode and neuroleptic anesthetic agents to allow repeated small lesions. Later, the introduction of a curved thermistor-tipped electrode allowed increased selectivity of lesioning.55 Through this work, it was also recognized that less dense lesioning reduced dysesthesia with no reduction in pain relief.55

As a consequence of these pioneering developments, recent studies report pain relief as high as 90% with recurrence rates of up to 25%.56,57 Yet despite these many refinements, RF still carries major morbidity compared with other surgical treatments for TN.58-60

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Patients are awake during portions of the procedure, and cooperation is critical during the stimulation phase to ensure correct placement and localization of the RF lesion. Preoperatively, patients must learn how to localize and designate where they perceive facial stimulation, which may be more difficult during the procedure as a result of the lingering effects of anesthesia. In the operating room, they are positioned as described previously, and C-arm fluoroscopy is positioned to assist in the proper needle placement in the foramen ovale. In some cases, computed tomographic control and neuronavigation have also been reported.61-63 Induction is performed typically with a short-acting neuroleptic analgesia such as propofol, but a combination of alfentanil and midazolam has also been used.59 After induction, a needle with an obturator is introduced into the foramen ovale, during which time a transient bradycardia may occur. Atopic placement in the foramen is confirmed with fluoroscopy, and lateral views should confirm that the tip of the needle does not reach beyond the petroclival junction (Figure 2). Once the position is confirmed, the obturator is removed and the electrode is introduced. The patient is awakened, and sensory and motor responses are tested. A detailed mapping then provides the optimal locations for lesioning to maximize pain relief (by overlapping new sensory deficits with maximal pain regions) while minimizing dysesthesia and motor weakness. Electric stimulation is typically achieved at 0.2 to 1 V (50 Hz for 0.2 milliseconds). The stimulating electrode is then replaced with the thermocouple, and lesions are made at a maximum of 0.5 V at 5 and 75 cycles per second at 55°C to 80°C for 30 to 120 seconds. Individual techniques vary from the use of a single lesion to the use of additional lesions with the goal of producing hypalgesia in the target branch. The hospital course is typically short, with discharge anticipated the same or next day.

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RF is a procedure that offers high initial pain relief, with rates as high as 97.6% reported in 1 study of 1561 patients by Kanpolat et al.59 In the same study, Kaplan-Meier analysis for pain-free survival in patients treated with a single RF procedure showed complete pain relief in 57.7% of patients at 60 months and 42.2% at 180 months. Pain relief was defined as free of pain with no medications. When patients treated multiple times with RF were included, those rates increased to 92.1% at 60 months and 97.3% at 180 months. Two smaller studies have reported Kaplan-Meier recurrence rates ranging from 7.8% to 25% at 11.6 and 14 years, respectively.64,65 In the study by Taha et al,65 it was also noted that pain recurrence correlated with degree of postoperative sensory deficit. Patients with mild hypalgesia experienced recurrence sooner (within 4 years) than those with dense hypalgesia and analgesia. The latter group reported 95% satisfaction rates even at 15 years, although this included those patients treated a second time.

The main limitations preventing more widespread use of RF are the frequency and severity of side effects. Masticatory weakness has been reported to be as high as 29% in 1 study, and rates of dysesthesia range from 1% to 11% (average, 3.7%) and of corneal numbness from 3% to 20% (average, 9.6%).12,46,59,66-68 These side effects may be due to (1) significant differences in the somatotopic organization of the trigeminal nerve between individuals and the challenge of accurate mapping before lesioning and (2) irreversible damage of small, unmyelinated pain fibers at the coagulation temperatures of 55°C to 70°C compared with BC, which selectively spares these same fiber types.23,69,70

In an effort to improve the efficacy of RF, Karol and Karol71 developed a quadripolar electrode for increased mapping accuracy. Their invention uses a computerized system to record and explore verbal responses from 34 facial subsegments (compared with the standard 3). With the use of a self-designed quadripolar electrode for stimulation of the postgasserian fibers, the accuracy of their somatotopic maps allows them to decrease their lesion size to 1.5 × 3 mm. This considerably reduces unnecessary and unwanted injury, yielding improved outcomes.

Other efforts have focused on improving lesioning accuracy through the use of computed tomographic and neuronavigator control.61-63 These preliminary studies suggest that improved imaging and needle localization may lead to lower rates of complications. In the neuronavigator study by Xu et al,62 the authors compared the efficacy of neuronavigator and standard fluoroscopy in 54 patients. Recurrence rates for the neuronavigator group at 12, 24, and 36 months were 85%, 77%, and 62%, respectively, whereas the control group fared worse at 54%, 40%, and 35% at the same time points. Although additional prospective studies are needed, these initial findings suggest that the use of neuronavigator-guided control improves complication and recurrence rates.

Although better imaging may improve lesion accuracy and recurrence, Fraioli et al64 reported that recurrence also depends on the site of the lesion within the division. In a study of 158 patients with isolated third-division pain, the authors noted lower rates of recurrence when the thermocoagulation target was at the gangliar-retrogasserian site compared with between the third division and gasserian ganglion.

Compared with the other operative procedures for TN, RF offers the following advantages over other percutaneous techniques: Recurrence rates are lower compared with GR, and it is more selective than BC, allowing isolated division therapy.4 Furthermore, in patients with the dual diagnosis of TN and MS, in whom higher recurrence rates and treatment failure have been reported, RF has proven to be an effective and safe treatment.10,72

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The 3 percutaneous techniques described represent some of the earliest surgical treatments for TN. They are collectively regarded as safe and effective in the properly selected patient. Since their development, additional treatment modalities have been developed, notably microvascular decompression (MVD) and Gamma Knife radiosurgery.73-76 Although not the subject of this review, these additional techniques provide alternative approaches for the skilled practitioner.

MVD represents a nondestructive surgical technique for relieving trigeminal nerve compression at the root entry zone, most often caused by vascular compression.74,77,78 Common offending vessels include the superior cerebellar artery or a bridging vein and may be identified on preoperative magnetic resonance imaging.79-82 Intraoperatively, the vessel is carefully freed from the nerve and held away with Teflon or another nonabsorbable material. Good long-term control rates (pain free, off medication) have been reported and range from 65% to 84% with an average follow-up of 6 years.83-86 Associated risks of the procedure include general anesthesia (death, 0.3%), sensory loss (5%-10%), and cerebrospinal fluid leak (7%), with an average hospitalization of 2 to 4 days.74,83,87

In addition to MVD, Gamma Knife radiosurgery has also gained in popularity in recent years because of its noninvasive approach. Although long-term studies are currently ongoing, targeted doses of 70 to 90 Gy to the trigeminal root entry zone have demonstrated good pain control rates of 50% to 75% at 5 years.88,89 Increasing radiation doses provide more effective pain relief but are associated with increased rates of bothersome paresthesias or numbness, ranging from 10% to 32% in published studies.8,88-90 Refractory cases may be retreated, although multiple treatments carry increased risk of nerve dysfunction.

In the properly selected patient, each of the 3 procedures described in this review, along with MVD and Gamma Knife radiosurgery, may provide good long-term pain control while minimizing bothersome side effects. To date, no randomized clinical trial exists comparing the efficacy and long-term outcomes of these procedures. Although retrospective case-control series provide evidence for the outcomes of a given procedure, significant differences in procedural technique and reporting of outcomes make direct comparisons between studies difficult.

As with all procedures, patient selection remains an important process in determining clinical outcomes. The first component of patient selection comprises patient preference and tolerance for risk and side effects. In 2007, Spatz and colleagues91 surveyed 156 patients with TN treated either surgically or with medication alone. Seventy-six percent of the study participants had undergone surgical intervention consisting of MVD, BC, GR, or RF. In their utility analysis, patients were queried for procedural preference, tolerance for numbness, and temporary and permanent complications. On average, patients preferred MVD just narrowly over BC, GR, and RF. Most patients opted for medical management last. However, when their tolerance for complications and side effects was taken into account, it turned out that BC would have been their preferred treatment despite their own perceived choice. These findings highlight the challenge of managing patients’ expectations with published outcomes.

The second component of patient selection focuses on the underlying pathophysiology of TN. Although no clear-cut algorithm exists, in our experience, there are several subpopulations of patients who may benefit from a given procedural choice. In our 2005 study and others, we studied patients with the dual diagnosis of MS and TN and compared treatment response. We concluded that patients with MS require significantly more treatments than even the most medically refractory non-MS patients and that, of the treatment modalities available, radiosurgery provides the longest-lasting and most effective therapeutic modality.10 Another subclass of patients with good evidence includes patients with TN with clear vascular compression observed on magnetic resonance imaging. In these instances, MVD provides an effective strategy to relieve the cause of the pathology with minimal risk of induced parasthesias.82,92,93 In the remainder of patients for whom no clear etiology exists, there remains a lack of Class I evidence to aid in treatment selection.

In addition to patient considerations, the practicing neurosurgeon must consider his/her familiarity and skill with the described methods. In particular, the proper positioning of the Hartel needle may be a source of anxiety and consternation for some, especially in an awake patient. Intraoperative guides such as C-arm fluoroscopy or the use of neuronavigation may provide a reassuring aid early on to allow the neurosurgeon to become facile with the technique. This learning curve for percutaneous techniques more broadly applies to all aspects of neurosurgery, and the balance between patient outcomes and procedural training remains a challenging topic. In a 2003 study by Kalkanis et al,94 the authors assessed the link between hospital and surgeon volume with clinical outcomes. They evaluated surgical outcomes after 1326 cases of MVD at low- (< 20 cases per year) and high- (> 29 cases per year) volume centers. Their results showed a significant improvement in clinical outcomes and fewer complications at higher-volume centers and with higher-volume surgeons, suggesting that experience and case volume play important roles in patient outcomes.

This review highlights the need for future high-quality, multi-institutional trials comparing the efficacy of the described surgical techniques for TN. Until then, practitioners will continue to rely on retrospective evidence, patient preference, and procedural familiarity to guide decision making.

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The percutaneous treatments for TN remain safe, effective options that provide excellent initial pain relief. Although MVD remains the gold standard for treatment and stereotactic radiosurgery offers promising results, there is still a place for BC, GR, and RF in the treatment of TN.

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The authors have no personal financial or institutional interest in any of the drugs, materials, or devices described in this article.

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Back to Top | Article Outline

The authors should be commended for sorting through the literature and crafting a nice review of the history and discussion of outcomes comparing the 3 main techniques for percutaneous lesioning of the trigeminal nerve (balloon compression, glycerol rhizotomy, and radiofrequency thermocoagulation). The descriptions of the operative technique for each are well detailed and well written and provide a good reference for the practitioner who has little or no experience in any one of these techniques. Although there is no original study, as in a feasible meta-analysis, primarily because of the difficulties in aligning patient selection criteria, uniformity of outcome measures, and so forth, this review provides a valuable up-to-date resource in comparing the 3 percutaneous approaches with each other and in comparing them with open decompression surgery and radiosurgical treatments. Important aspects of this topic that extend beyond the scope of the article would be to consider learning curves for these procedures, especially in comparing those new to the field with practitioners who have longer-term experience in only 1 or 2 of these techniques. Complication rates in the learning process would be helpful to study in the future.

In addition, in reading this current assessment of such a large component of our surgical arsenal for treating trigeminal neuralgia, it strikes me that overall we have met with a somewhat surprising ceiling on outcomes in our ability to “solve” trigeminal neuralgia, especially as one looks to failure rates of approximately 50% at 3 years. Not to be critical, but these patients, as we all know, are often quite desperate and disabled. I suspect the high success of procedures initially and the patients' willingness to undergo almost anything as treatment have unfortunately left the field with little innovation to make the long-term benefits better. New technologies and approaches should be explored for which the goal might be to achieve 10-year benefit rates of > 75%, for example.

Jeffrey Arle

Boston, Massachusetts

Cited By:

This article has been cited 1 time(s).

Physica Medica-European Journal of Medical Physics
Radiosurgery in trigeminal neuralgia
Lettmaier, S
Physica Medica-European Journal of Medical Physics, 30(5): 592-595.
Back to Top | Article Outline

Balloon compression; Glycerol rhizotomy; Percutaneous; Radiofrequency thermocoagulation; Trigeminal neuralgia

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