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. 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. The disorder 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 by certain movements (eg, chewing, swallowing, coughing, talking, yawning, 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 be very infrequent.
Diagnosis 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.
Treatment is the same as that for trigeminal neuralgia (see Neuro-ophthalmologic and Cranial Nerve Disorders: Treatment). 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.
Last full review/revision July 2012 by Michael Rubin, MDCM