Facial Pain

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

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Facial pain has a long list of possible causes but the diagnosis can often be made by a good history and examination. The common causes are often benign and self-limiting but it is essential not to miss those conditions that require urgent treatment - eg, temporal arteritis, or early diagnosis - eg, malignancy. There is a tendency to overdiagnose bacterial sinusitis when the real cause may be a viral upper respiratory tract infection or, much less frequently, a more serious cause of facial pain.

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  • Site:
    • Pain in the region of the ear may be referred from the skin, teeth, tonsils, pharynx, larynx or neck.
    • Tenderness over the maxilla may be due to sinusitis, dental abscess or carcinoma.
  • Character:
    • Trigeminal neuralgia: intermittent sharp, severe pain in the distribution of the divisions of the trigeminal nerve.
    • Infections of teeth, mastoid and ear: often dull, aching quality.
  • Precipitating factors:
    • Precipitated by food or chewing: dental abscess, salivary gland disorder, temporomandibular joint disorder or jaw claudication due to temporal arteritis.
    • Trigeminal neuralgia: even the slightest touch of the skin causes intense pain.
  • Associated symptoms:
    • Obstruction of the lacrimal duct by nasopharyngeal carcinoma may cause watering of the eyes.
    • Otorrhoea and/or hearing loss suggest an ear or mastoid cause.
    • Nasal obstruction and rhinorrhoea may be due to maxillary sinusitis or carcinoma of the maxillary antrum. Carcinoma of the maxillary antrum may also present with unilateral epistaxis.
    • Proximal muscle weakness and pain may be due to polymyalgia rheumatica, associated with temporal arteritis.


  • Unilateral erythema and vesicles in the distribution of the trigeminal nerve: herpes zoster infection (may not be present in the early stages of the disease).
  • Localised erythema or swelling: localised infection or carcinoma.
  • Inspection of the nose and throat may demonstrate a nasopharyngeal tumour.
  • Facial palsy: may be due to a tumour of the parotid gland.
  • Tenderness of the superficial temporal artery associated with temporal arteritis.
  • Cervical lymphadenopathy: infection or carcinoma.
  • FBC: raised white cell count in infection or malignancy.
  • ESR, CRP: increase in infection, malignancy, temporal arteritis.
  • X-rays:
    • Opacification of the sinus and destruction of bone with carcinoma of sinuses.
    • Opacification may also occur in sinusitis.
    • Mastoid films may show opacification in cases of mastoiditis.
  •  MRI scan with and without gadolinium is the investigation of choice. CT scan with contrast is less useful because there is less resolution of the cranial nerves and posterior fossa. .[1] 
  • Sialography: parotid conditions - eg, duct stones, sialectasis.
  • Fine needle aspiration: parotid tumours.
  • The essential aspect of management in primary care is to make an accurate diagnosis. The management will then depend on the identified cause of facial pain.
  • The first-line treatment for atypical facial pain is a tricyclic antidepressant such as amitriptyline. Fluoxetine and venlafaxine can also been considered.[4] Peripheral subcutaneous field stimulation may be an alternative for patients with intractable pain.[5] 
  • Specialist referral should be made according to local guidelines. One such guideline suggests referring patients who have:[6]  
    • Facial pain persisting for more than three months.
    • Persistent temporomandibular disorders not responding to simple analgesics, lifestyle changes and reassurance.
    • Persisting pain affecting function and causing distress.
    • Widespread pain.
    • Pain which is part of systemic disease.
    • Significant psychological or social problems.
    • Co-existing mental health problems which have an impact on treatment.
    • Compliance problems - eg, side-effects.
    • A recognised pain syndrome such as trigeminal neuralgia.
    • Patients with special needs - eg, learning disabled, communication problems.

Further reading & references

  1. Krolczyk SJ; Persistent Idiopathic Facial Pain, Medscape, Mar 2012
  2. Ruffatti S, Zanchin G, Maggioni F; A case of intractable facial pain secondary to metastatic lung cancer. Neurol Sci. 2008 Apr;29(2):117-9. Epub 2008 May 16.
  3. Raval T et al; Facial Pain and Headache, Medscape, Nov 2011
  4. Cornelissen P, van Kleef M, Mekhail N, et al; Evidence-based interventional pain medicine according to clinical diagnoses. 3. Persistent idiopathic facial pain. Pain Pract. 2009 Nov-Dec;9(6):443-8.
  5. Yakovlev AE, Resch BE; Treatment of chronic intractable atypical facial pain using peripheral subcutaneous field stimulation. Neuromodulation. 2010 Apr;13(2):137-40. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1403.2009.00249.x. Epub 2010 Jan 12.
  6. How to refer - Facial pain; University College London Hospitals

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Colin Tidy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
2129 (v23)
Last Checked:
Next Review:
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