In the past two decades, there has been increasing evidence to suggest that trigeminal neuralgia (TN) may be linked to a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The aim of the present study was to formally test this hypothesis by comparing the reactivity of the ANS to experimental pain in a population of TN patients and healthy controls.
Twelve patients diagnosed with classical TN and 12 healthy controls participated in the study. Cardiac activity was assessed while participants were instructed to rest and again during a cold pressor test (CPT). Heart rate variability analyses were performed off-line to obtain parasympathetic (high-frequency) and sympathetic (low-frequency) indices.
At baseline, ANS measures did not differ between healthy controls and TN patients, and both groups showed a similar increase in heart rate during the CPT (all p values >0.05). However, TN patients showed a greater increase in cardiac sympathetic activity and a greater decrease in cardiac parasympathetic activity during CPT compared with healthy controls (all p values <0.05). Importantly, changes in sympathetic reactivity, from baseline to CPT, were negatively associated with the number of pain paroxysms experienced each day by TN patients in the preceding week (r=−.58, p<0.05).
These results suggest that TN, like many other short-lasting, unilateral facial pain conditions, is linked to ANS alterations. Future studies are required to determine if the altered ANS response observed in TN patients is a cause or a consequence of TN pain