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Trigeminal Nerve and Migraine : Understanding the Connection and Treatment Options

What is the Trigeminal Nerve?

The trigeminal nerve is the largest cranial nerve and plays a pivotal role in transmitting sensory information from the face and head to the brain. It has three main branches that innervate various facial structures, including the forehead, cheeks, jaw, and teeth. In the context of migraines, the trigeminal nerve becomes hypersensitive and overly reactive, leading to the characteristic severe and throbbing pain experienced during an attack. This phenomenon, known as trigeminal sensitization, is a key factor in the initiation and perpetuation of migraine pain.(1,2)

Is There a Link Between the Trigeminal Nerve and Migraine Pain?

The role of the trigeminal nerve in migraine is pivotal. It serves as the messenger, transmitting pain signals from the brain to specific facial regions where migraines manifest. Migraine, characterized by severe headaches often accompanied by symptoms like nausea and heightened sensitivity to light, is closely intertwined with the activity of the trigeminal nerve. Conversely, trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a chronic pain condition that primarily affects this crucial nerve, playing a significant role in both facial sensations and the motor functions of the jaw.(3)

Structural alterations within the trigeminal nerve can lead to disruptions in its various branches, potentially triggering migraine episodes. Understanding this intricate relationship provides crucial insights into the mechanisms behind migraine onset. Exploring the complexities of the trigeminal nerve not only sheds light on the origins of migraines and headaches but also holds the promise of developing more effective treatments.

Trigeminal Nerve’s Role in Initiating Migraine Episodes

AS mentioned above, the trigeminal nerve plays a central role in the initiation and progression of migraine episodes. This crucial nerve is responsible for transmitting sensory information from the face, including sensations of pain, to the brain. In migraine, the trigeminal nerve becomes hypersensitive and overactive, leading to a phenomenon known as trigeminal sensitization. This means that normal sensory signals can become exaggerated and misinterpreted as pain signals, particularly in response to triggers like stress, certain foods, or hormonal changes.

When a migraine episode is triggered, various factors stimulate the trigeminal nerve branches. Here is how this nerve is involved:

  • Sensory Transmission: The trigeminal nerve is responsible for transmitting sensory information from various parts of the face, including the forehead, cheeks, jaw, and teeth, to the brain. During a migraine, this nerve becomes hypersensitive and overreactive.(4)
  • Pain Signaling: In a migraine attack, certain triggers, such as stress, certain foods, hormonal changes, or environmental factors, can activate the trigeminal nerve. This activation leads to the release of neuropeptides, which are signaling molecules that cause blood vessels to dilate and become inflamed.(5)
  • Inflammation and Vasodilation: The release of neuropeptides, particularly substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), triggers inflammation and vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) in the brain’s blood vessels. This process is thought to be a key factor in migraine pain.(6,7)
  • Pain Perception: The signals sent by the trigeminal nerve to the brain are interpreted as severe and throbbing pain. This pain perception is a hallmark of migraine and is often accompanied by other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Neurological Cascade: The activation of the trigeminal nerve can set off a complex neurological cascade involving various brain regions, ultimately leading to the full-blown migraine attack.

In 2019, research demonstrated that inhibiting CGRP activity might serve as an effective strategy for preventing migraine episodes. The concept revolves around reducing the production of CGRP in the body, potentially providing a safeguard against migraines. Nevertheless, the complete solution to preventing these episodes may entail a more multifaceted approach.(8)

A subsequent study conducted in 2020 delved deeper into this matter. Researchers conducted imaging tests on two equivalent groups, one comprising individuals with migraines and the other acting as a control group. The findings revealed notable disparities in the structures of the trigeminal nerve between those with migraines and the control group, suggesting that the origins of migraine susceptibility may be more intricate than initially thought.(9)

Recognizing the Signs of Trigeminal Nerve-Related Headaches

A trigeminal nerve-related headache, often associated with conditions like trigeminal neuralgia or migraine, can be characterized by distinct sensations.

  • Searing or Electric Shock-like Pain: Trigeminal neuralgia, for instance, is known for sudden, severe, and stabbing pain that can feel like an electric shock. This pain is typically focused on one side of the face, often around the eye, cheek, or jaw.(10)
  • Sharp, Shooting Pain: The pain can be intense and abrupt, often described as a sharp, shooting sensation. It can be triggered by even minor stimuli like touching the face, chewing, or speaking.
  • Episodic or Paroxysmal: Trigeminal nerve-related headaches, especially in conditions like trigeminal neuralgia, tend to occur in sudden, intense episodes or paroxysms. These episodes can last for a few seconds to a couple of minutes.(11)
  • Location-specific: The pain is usually localized to specific areas of the face corresponding to the branches of the trigeminal nerve. This can include the forehead, eye, cheek, or jaw.
  • Recurring and Sudden Onset: In conditions like trigeminal neuralgia, the pain often occurs in recurrent, unpredictable bursts. Migraines, which can also involve the trigeminal nerve, may have a more gradual onset but can still feature intense, localized pain.
  • Accompanying Symptoms: In the case of migraines, which involve the trigeminal nerve, other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and sound may be present.
  • Unilateral: Trigeminal nerve-related headaches often affect one side of the face, although it is possible for bilateral involvement in some cases.(12)

It is important to note that while these descriptions provide a general overview, individual experiences can vary.

Comparing Migraine Episodes Triggered by Trigeminal Nerve Activity and Trigeminal Neuralgia

A migraine episode caused by trigeminal nerve activity and trigeminal neuralgia are distinct conditions with different underlying mechanisms and characteristics:(13)

  1. Migraine Episode Caused by Trigeminal Nerve Activity:

    • Nature of Pain: Migraines are typically throbbing, pulsating headaches that can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound.
    • Duration: They can last from a few hours to several days.
    • Triggers: Various factors like hormonal changes, certain foods, stress, and environmental stimuli can trigger a migraine.
    • Trigeminal Nerve Involvement: Migraines involve the trigeminal nerve, but they are not primarily caused by it. Instead, the trigeminal nerve becomes hypersensitive during an attack, contributing to the intense pain and other symptoms.
    • Location of Pain: Migraine pain is typically widespread and can affect one or both sides of the head.
  2. Trigeminal Neuralgia:

    • Nature of Pain: Trigeminal neuralgia is characterized by sudden, severe, electric shock-like facial pain that is typically triggered by even mild stimuli like touching the face or chewing.
    • Duration: The pain is intense but brief, often lasting only a few seconds to a couple of minutes.
    • Triggers: Common triggers include activities that stimulate the trigeminal nerve, such as eating, talking, or even a gentle breeze.
    • Trigeminal Nerve Involvement: Trigeminal neuralgia is primarily caused by a dysfunction or irritation of the trigeminal nerve itself.
    • Location of Pain: The pain is usually concentrated in specific areas of the face corresponding to the branches of the trigeminal nerve.

    While both conditions involve the trigeminal nerve, the primary cause and nature of pain are distinct.

Treatment of Migraine Caused by the Trigeminal Nerve

A migraine episode caused by trigeminal nerve activity can be managed through various treatment approaches. Here are some common strategies:(14)

  1. Abortive Medications:

    • Triptans: These are a class of drugs specifically designed to alleviate migraine symptoms by constricting blood vessels and blocking pain pathways in the brain.
    • NSAIDs: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help relieve pain and inflammation associated with migraines.
  2. Pain Relief Medications:

    • Acetaminophen: This over-the-counter pain reliever may be effective for mild to moderate migraine pain.
  3. Anti-Nausea Medications:

    Drugs like ondansetron can help control nausea and vomiting, which often accompany migraines.

  4. Preventive Medications:

    For individuals with frequent or severe migraines, certain medications (e.g., beta-blockers, antiepileptic drugs) may be prescribed to reduce the frequency and intensity of attacks.

  5. CGRP Monoclonal Antibodies:

    These newer medications specifically target the calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), a neurotransmitter involved in migraine attacks. They can be effective in preventing migraines in some individuals.(15)

  6. Lifestyle Modifications:

    Identifying and avoiding migraine triggers, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, staying hydrated, and managing stress through techniques like relaxation exercises or biofeedback can help reduce the frequency of migraines.

  7. Biofeedback and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

    These therapies focus on training individuals to control physiological responses (such as muscle tension and heart rate) associated with stress and pain.

  8. Invasive Procedures:

    In severe cases, procedures like nerve blocks or occipital nerve stimulation may be considered as a last resort.

    It is important for individuals experiencing migraines to work closely with their healthcare provider to develop a personalized treatment plan. This plan may involve a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and other interventions tailored to the individual’s specific needs and the frequency and severity of their migraines.


The hypersensitivity and reactivity of the trigeminal nerve plays an important role in the initiation and progression of migraine episodes. Understanding this dynamic allows for targeted treatment strategies, ranging from abortive medications to preventive approaches like CGRP monoclonal antibodies. Moreover, lifestyle modifications and behavioral therapies offer additional tools in managing this debilitating condition. As research advances, we will be at a better position to understand this link, leading to more effective interventions and improved quality of life for those affected by migraines.


  1. Walker, H.K., 1990. Cranial nerve V: the trigeminal nerve. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition.
  2. Bathla, G. and Hegde, A.N., 2013. The trigeminal nerve: an illustrated review of its imaging anatomy and pathology. Clinical radiology, 68(2), pp.203-213.
  3. Edvinsson, J.C.A., Viganò, A., Alekseeva, A., Alieva, E., Arruda, R., De Luca, C., D’Ettore, N., Frattale, I., Kurnukhina, M., Macerola, N. and Malenkova, E., 2020. The fifth cranial nerve in headaches. The journal of headache and pain, 21, pp.1-17.
  4. Van der Cruyssen, F. and Politis, C., 2018. Neurophysiological aspects of the trigeminal sensory system: an update. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 29(2), pp.115-123.
  5. Kim, H.Y., Kim, K., Li, H.Y., Chung, G., Park, C.K., Kim, J.S., Jung, S.J., Lee, M.K., Ahn, D.K., Hwang, S.J. and Kang, Y., 2010. Selectively targeting pain in the trigeminal system. Pain, 150(1), pp.29-40.
  6. Durham, P.L., 2006. Calcitonin gene‐related peptide (CGRP) and migraine. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 46, pp.S3-S8.
  7. Russo, A.F., 2015. Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP): a new target for migraine. Annual review of pharmacology and toxicology, 55, pp.533-552.
  8. Iyengar, S., Johnson, K.W., Ossipov, M.H. and Aurora, S.K., 2019. CGRP and the trigeminal system in migraine. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 59(5), pp.659-681.
  9. Mungoven, T.J., Meylakh, N., Marciszewski, K.K., Macefield, V.G., Macey, P.M. and Henderson, L.A., 2020. Microstructural changes in the trigeminal nerve of patients with episodic migraine assessed using magnetic resonance imaging. The journal of headache and pain, 21, pp.1-11.
  10. Zakrzewska, J.M. and Linskey, M.E., 2014. Trigeminal neuralgia. Bmj, 348.
  11. Goadsby, P.J., 2012. Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias. CONTINUUM: Lifelong Learning in Neurology, 18(4), pp.883-895.
  12. Buture, A., Gooriah, R., Nimeri, R. and Ahmed, F., 2016. Current understanding on pain mechanism in migraine and cluster headache. Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, 6(3).
  13. Petrarca, K. (2022) The relationship between migraine and trigeminal neuralgia, Association of Migraine Disorders. Available at: https://www.migrainedisorders.org/migraine-and-trigeminal-neuralgia/ (Accessed: 08 September 2023).
  14. Dr. Rod Strickland, D. (2022) Why the trigeminal nerve is the start of your migraines, Beyond Exceptional Dentistry. Available at: https://www.beyondexceptionaldentistry.com/blog/where-migraines-start-the-trigeminal-nerve/ (Accessed: 08 September 2023).
  15. Tso, A.R. and Goadsby, P.J., 2017. Anti-CGRP monoclonal antibodies: the next era of migraine prevention?. Current treatment options in neurology, 19, pp.1-11.
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:October 21, 2023

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