NJ Woman’s Facial Pain Eases with Groundbreaking Approach   

NJ Woman’s Facial Pain Eases with Groundbreaking Approach

Mary Rice

February 13, 2024

Mary Rice was living at a fast pace—working, earning a second master’s degree, running 5K events and photographing beach scenes—when a bolt of pain in her face in January 2018 brought it all to a standstill.

The Toms River, New Jersey, woman, then 38, continued experiencing hundreds of “electric zaps” each day in the left side of her face and forehead, but she had no idea why. Eventually diagnosed with atypical facial pain and a form of trigeminal neuralgia—a type of chronic pain disorder—the agony forced Mary to stop working and apply for disability benefits.

“I was out with my family at lunch one day and started crying because the pain was so intense,” says Mary, who worked in retail sales. “My social life changed because I was afraid to do anything since I never knew when it would strike.”

An array of treatments to ease the pain—including multiple nerve root compression procedures, nerve blocks and anesthetic infusions—proved fruitless until Mary came to the Hackensack Meridian Neuroscience Institute at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Meeting with Chair of Neurosurgery Shabbar Danish, M.D., changed Mary’s life. After examining her, Dr. Danish suggested she be the first patient at Jersey Shore to undergo groundbreaking therapy for her facial pain that’s typically reserved for patients with movement disorders.

Positive Early Signs After Deep Brain Stimulation

Called deep brain stimulation (DBS), the minimally invasive surgery is usually performed to improve shaking and related symptoms among patients with Parkinson’s disease or essential tremor. Here’s how it works:

  • DBS involves implanting a small wire in the affected area of the brain—in Mary’s case, the thalamic nuclei, which was implicated in her facial pain.
  • Extension cables are routed under the skin to the chest, where a neurostimulator is placed.
  • The neurostimulator delivers continuous electrical stimulation to improve symptoms.

While Dr. Danish had never before performed DBS on someone with facial pain, “ultimately nothing had worked for Mary,” he says. “I think because we had exhausted all of our options, she was willing to give this a try.”

Dr. Danish tapped his wide network of neurosurgery contacts across the country to affirm his approach. In July 2023, he performed the surgery on Mary, assisted by clinical neurophysiologist Eric Hargreaves, Ph.D., advanced practice nurse Dana Dolce, APN, and the deep brain stimulation team at Jersey Shore, who guided wire placement to targeted area in Mary’s brain.

The team immediately felt confident the half-awake, half-sedated procedure would benefit Mary after observing side effects such as facial warmth on her forehead and cheek, indicating the correct region was being stimulated.

“We don’t necessarily see instant pain relief intraoperatively, but we were thrilled to see the effects we did,” Dr. Hargreaves says. “We knew she would experience pain relief, as well.”

Personalized Pain Control

Indeed, Mary didn’t know for certain until several weeks later, after her neurostimulator device was implanted in a second procedure, that the operation had worked. With regular programming tweaks done by Dr. Hargreaves and Dana, Mary is able to make small adjustments to her DBS system to stem pain as it arises.

“I like the control, because there are days—such as when the weather is changing or it’s a high-stress day—when pain can be a little more intense,” she says. “Now I have very little pain overall. I’m ecstatic about the relief.”

Happily back to doing normal activities such as walking her dog Winnie and taking photos at the beach, Mary is grateful to have been the first person at Jersey Shore with her diagnosis to benefit from DBS surgery. “The care I received from the whole team was unbelievable,” says Mary, now 43. “They just put me at ease.”

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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