Face pain is pain felt in any part of the face, including the mouth and eyes. Although it is normally caused by an injury or headache, facial pain may also be caused by a serious medical condition. Most causes of facial pain are harmless. However, if you have facial pain that seems to come without any known cause, call your doctor for evaluation.
What Causes Facial Pain?
Facial pain can be caused by anything from an infection to nerve damage in the face. Common causes for facial pain include:
- oral infections
- ulcers (open sores)
- abscess (collection of pus under the surface tissue in the mouth, for example)
- skin abscess (collection of pus under the skin)
- facial injury
More serious causes for facial pain include:
- herpes zoster (shingles)
- sinusitis (sinus infection)
- nerve disorder
Facial pain is often described as cramp-like, stabbing, or achy. Pain from other areas in the body may also radiate or spread to the face, such as pain in the ears or head.
Types of Face Pain
The exact type of pain you feel will depend on the cause. A dull, throbbing pain that is located on one side of your face or around your mouth is generally caused by problems within the mouth such as a toothache, a cavity, or an abscess. If you experience this type of pain, contact your dentist.
The pain associated with sinusitis, on the other hand, would feel like pressure or aching pain across the front of the cheekbones and underneath the eyes. Abscesses and ulcers will often throb at the site of the sore. Headaches and injuries can feel like a stabbing sensation or can throb and ache.
Because there are many causes of facial pain, if you experience pain that is unexplainable or unbearable, talk to your doctor.
When Is Face Pain an Emergency?
If you experience facial pain that appears suddenly and radiates from the chest or most often the left arm, call 911 immediately. This may be the sign of an impending heart attack.
Usually, however, face pain is not a medical emergency and can be treated at a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment.
At the Doctor’s Office
When visiting your doctor, make sure to give him or her the following information:
- what part of your face is hurting
- how often the pain is felt
- exactly where the pain is coming from
- what kind of pain is experienced
- how long the pain lasts
- what relieves the pain
- any other symptoms experienced
To diagnose your pain, the doctor may give an imaging test such as an X-ray or MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging scan). These imaging tests are useful in diagnosing problems within the bones, muscles, and tissue. An X-ray may also be used to check the sinuses.
Your doctor may take a blood sample to test for certain infections. This is done with minimal pain by drawing blood from your arm.
If your symptoms reveal possible eye dysfunction or if the doctor is concerned you may be having heart problems, he or she will order additional tests.
If your eyes are the cause of your facial pain, the doctor will refer you to an eye doctor who will give you a tonometry examination. For this examination, a numbing drop is applied in each eye. Then a small strip of paper containing an orange dye is placed against the eyeball. The eye doctor uses a slit lamp that illuminates the eye to check the cornea and other parts of the eye for damage. This test is effective in diagnosing ulcers and glaucoma.
Facial Pain Caused by the Heart
An ECG test may be necessary to see if your heart is causing the issues. For this test, the doctor places small, painless electrode monitors on your chest, arms, and legs. These monitors are then connected to an ECG machine, which takes a reading of your heart’s electrical activity. This test is helpful in diagnosing a heart attack or abnormal heart rhythms.
Relieving the Pain
Facial pain generally goes away once the cause is diagnosed and treated. Treatment options for facial pain are determined by the cause. Pain caused by infections (like sinusitis) generally clears up after using antibiotics or allowing the infection to heal on its own.
Facial pain caused by a viral infection such as shingles may simply go away without treatment within a few days to a few weeks. However, prescription antiviral medications like acyclovir and valacyclovir may shorten the duration of the rash.
If the facial pain is caused by an oral condition, it can be treated by a dentist, sometimes by pulling a tooth or performing a root canal.
Facial pain caused by cluster headaches or migraine headaches can be treated using over-the-counter pain relief. However, sometimes facial pain caused by headaches does not respond to over-the-counter medications. In this case, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication for pain relief.