CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - For over a year and a half, Mary Mullowney suffered excruciating pain that started in a tooth. But over time the shocking sensation migrated into her tongue making it almost impossible to speak clearly. After several visits to a dentist and endodontist, Mary felt as though she would never get relief.
That's when a holiday visit from her son changed everything.
Mary's son, Mike Mullowney, is Vice President of Carolina HealthCare System's Neurosciences Institute, part of Atrium Health. He asked Mary what was wrong with her speech. When she told her son she wasn't sure but the doctor had mentioned the word "Neuralgia" he instantly thought of one of the doctors he works with, Dr. Tony Asher.
Mike told his mother, "I think I know what you have!"
Dr. Asher, who is known across the country for treating Trigeminal Neuralgia, suspected Mary was suffering from the rare, but very painful condition.
After trying medications and no relief, Dr. Asher ordered an MRI.
"These MRI scans, called Fiesta Scans, are very detailed." The neurosurgeon was able to see the cause of Mary's TN.
A blood vessel was pressing on Mary's trigeminal nerve, a three-pronged nerve that carries sensation from the face to the brain. That pressure was sending the intermittent shocking pain to her teeth, jaw, and tongue.
"With this scan we knew Mary was a good candidate for Micro Vascular Decompression surgery."
While the surgery isn't new, technology has made the procedure more accurate and safer, according to the doctor.
During the surgery, a small opening is made in the patient's skull behind their ear. The surgeon locates the blood vessel pressing on the nerve and slips a small Teflon felt-like patch between the vessel and the nerve.
"That piece scars in place and for many patients the agony ends. This can be life changing surgery! I remember one patient, the same afternoon after surgery, visiting him in the hospital. He was vigorously brushing his teeth. I said 'Wow!' He looked at me and said 'Because of my pain I haven't been able to do this for a very long time and it feels so good!'" Dr. Asher remembers.
For Mary, it's been three years since surgery and she's never had another episode of pain.
While the decompression surgery isn't for all people who suffer from Trigeminal Neuralgia, for those with a distinct blood vessel pressing on the nerve, Dr. Asher says, it's transformative.
Aside from a blood vessel pressing on the nerve, TN has many causes, patients with Multiple Sclerosis sometimes suffer from it, others have damage to the Trigeminal nerve. And for many more, doctors are still puzzled.
The most important advice Dr. Asher has for patients with extreme, debilitating facial pain, exhaust all your options. Make sure to get a proper diagnosis!
"Even the medical profession as a whole needs to be better educated on TN. While it is rare, maybe twelve to fifteen thousand people are diagnosed each year, many suffer without the proper diagnosis," Dr. Asher told me.
Mary is grateful that her son was able to make the connection and ultimately lead her to Dr. Asher, who she says, gave her her life back!