Thousands of people suffering from a disabling headache condition could soon be cured by a patch of Teflon implanted inside the brain.
The pioneering treatment is designed to block pain messages along a major nerve, and research suggests it is highly effective.
Data due to be published soon shows that nearly two-thirds of patients who had the procedure are now pain-free.
Thousands of people suffering from a disabling headache condition could soon be cured by a patch of Teflon implanted inside the brain
The condition, known as short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache with conjunctival injection and tearing, or SUNCT, affects more than 10,000 Britons.
It causes shooting pain on the side of the face, jaw and gums and often makes the eyes and nose stream. Sufferers are predominantly male and over 50.
It is not fully understood why SUNCT occurs, but it is thought to involve a disturbance in part of the brain linked to the trigeminal nerve, which controls sensations of pain in the face.
Julian Belsom, 50, from Folkestone, Kent, is among patients whose lives have been transformed by the operation.
He began suffering from pain in his jaw in 2014. It became so severe that he felt suicidal and was forced to quit his job as a night manager in a Tesco store.
The father-of-two, who lives with wife Annette, eventually had to sell the family home as they could no longer afford the mortgage.
He says of the condition: ‘It was like an electric shock and a bee sting at the same time. I was in constant pain every day. There was no respite and it stopped everything in my daily life.’
During the procedure, neurosurgeons remove a small piece of skull from behind the ear and carefully separate the trigeminal nerve, near the base of the brain, from the artery next to it.
They then place a small pad of polytetrafluoroethylene – the same substance used to coat Teflon non-stick pans – between the nerve and the artery, to keep them apart.
More than 50 patients with SUNCT have now had the surgery in the UK, and data suggests up to 70 per cent are ‘virtually cured’ of pain
By relieving pressure on the nerve, the pain sensations are reduced. Polytetrafluoroethylene is commonly used as a surgical implant, as it is ‘inert’ – it doesn’t cause reactions within the body that might lead to complications.
Surgeons were astounded at the positive effect the operation had. More than 50 patients with SUNCT have now had the surgery in the UK, and data suggests up to 70 per cent are ‘virtually cured’ of pain, according to Dr Giorgio Lambru, consultant neurologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital.
He said: ‘It is amazing to have this big improvement, and very unusual in neurology. It’s heartening to see people free from this terrible pain and able to enjoy their lives again.’
While there are at least 10,000 Britons known to be suffering from SUNCT, experts believe the real figure is considerably higher.
Dr Lambru says this is because it can be mistaken for a stroke, sinusitis – a swelling condition affecting the tissue behind the cheekbones and forehead – or a problem with the teeth. ‘People often end up having unnecessary treatment, including having teeth removed or sinus surgery, to try to solve it.’
When the condition is correctly diagnosed, the main treatments include epilepsy and migraine medication. However, these don’t work for many sufferers, or work only temporarily.
Mr Belsom first believed the shooting pain in his upper and lower jaw was toothache. He visited a dentist, who removed a tooth which was thought to be causing the pain, but this made no difference. Eventually, he was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed SUNCT, and treated him with various pain relief medications.
‘At one point I was taking 26 tablets a day,’ Julian says.
Some treatments worked briefly, including once for a month, but the agony always returned. ‘The only thing that relieved the pain slightly was sitting completely still, not eating, drinking or talking,’ he says.
In 2018, Julian was offered the chance to have the new surgery.
As soon as he woke up from the procedure, he says he was free of nerve pain. ‘It has been absolutely magic. It has given me my life back.’
He is now back at work as a manager for Tesco Mobile. ‘I can’t stop speaking, as I hardly said a word for four years as it could trigger the pain.’
Dr Lambru said: ‘Given the clear benefits, I definitely think the procedure will be available for SUNCT patients across the UK soon.’