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Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia

By Michael Rubin, MDCM, Professor of Clinical Neurology; Attending Neurologist and Director, Neuromuscular Service and EMG Laboratory, Weill Cornell Medical College; New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell Medical Center

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Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is characterized by recurrent attacks of severe pain in the 9th and 10th cranial nerve distribution (posterior pharynx, tonsils, back of the tongue, middle ear, under the angle of the jaw). Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment is usually with carbamazepine or gabapentin.

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia sometimes results from nerve compression by an aberrant, pulsating artery similar to that in trigeminal neuralgia and hemifacial spasm. The nerve may be compressed in the neck by an elongated styloid process (Eagle syndrome). Rarely, the cause is a tumor in the cerebellopontine angle or the neck, a peritonsillar abscess, a carotid aneurysm, or a demyelinating disorder. Often, no cause is identified.

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is rare, more commonly affecting men, usually after age 40.

Symptoms and Signs

As in trigeminal neuralgia, paroxysmal attacks of unilateral brief, excruciating pain occur spontaneously or are precipitated when areas innervated by the glossopharyngeal nerve are stimulated (eg, by chewing, swallowing, coughing, talking, yawning, or sneezing). The pain, lasting seconds to a few minutes, usually begins in the tonsillar region or at the base of the tongue and may radiate to the ipsilateral ear. Occasionally, increased vagus nerve activity causes sinus arrest with syncope; episodes may occur daily or once every few weeks.


  • Clinical evaluation, often including response to anesthetics

  • MRI

Diagnosis of glossopharyngeal neuralgia is clinical.

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia is distinguished from trigeminal neuralgia by the location of the pain. Also, in glossopharyngeal neuralgia, swallowing or touching the tonsils with an applicator tends to precipitate pain, and applying lidocaine to the throat temporarily eliminates spontaneous or evoked pain.

MRI is done to exclude tonsillar, pharyngeal, and cerebellopontine angle tumors and metastatic lesions in the anterior cervical triangle. Local nerve blocks done by an ENT physician can help distinguish between carotidynia, superior laryngeal neuralgia, and pain caused by tumors.


  • Usually anticonvulsants

Treatment of glossopharyngeal neuralgia is the same as that for trigeminal neuralgia.

If oral drugs are ineffective, local anesthetics can provide relief. For example, topical cocaine applied to the pharynx may provide temporary relief, and surgery to decompress the nerve from a pulsating artery may be necessary. If pain is restricted to the pharynx, surgery can be restricted to the extracranial part of the nerve. If pain is widespread, surgery must involve the intracranial part of the nerve.