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What is Cranial Neuropathy?

By J.M. Densing
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cranial neuropathy is a condition in which some of the nerves in the cranium, or skull, have become damaged. The nerves control functions such as vision, hearing, facial movement and the actions of some of the organs in the head, chest, and abdomen. It is usually a secondary problem caused by another medical condition. Damage to these nerves can occur from many causes, with a common one being diabetes. In many cases, neuropathy symptoms clear up within a few months.

There are 12 pairs of nerves located in the cranium; cranial neuropathy is when one or more of these pairs becomes injured. Damage to a single nerve is sometimes called cranial mononeuropathy. Damage to these nerves can cause abnormal functioning of one of the many diverse areas that they govern. The cranial nerves control sight, hearing, taste, smell, and facial movement. Some nerves also regulate certain glands, control swallowing, and the automatic functioning of chest and abdominal organs such as the heart and stomach.

Cranial neuropathy can prompt a wide range of symptoms depending on which nerve is damaged. Occasionally a complication called trigeminal neuralgia occurs, resulting in severe facial pain. One of the most common cranial neuropathies is damage to the seventh, i.e., the facial nerve. This can cause facial pain focused near one of the eyes and paralysis of the eye muscles. Other complications can also occur including facial tics, twitches, spasms, or Bell's palsy, which is partial or full paralysis of the face.

Another common cranial neuropathy is when damage occurs to the oculomotor or third nerve; symptoms can include drooping of the eyelid, pain behind the eye, and double vision. Damage to the vagus or tenth nerve can cause difficulty swallowing, speech impairments, and altered organ functioning. This can result in symptoms including a reduced heart rate, low blood pressure, and stomach difficulties. Cranial neuropathy involving the hypoglossal or twelfth nerve can include symptoms such as weakness of the tongue causing difficulty eating or speaking.

Cranial neuropathy occurs as a secondary problem arising from a wide variety of other medical conditions. Diabetes frequently causes it as part of diabetic neuropathy which affects nerves all over the body. It can also be caused by a range of medical conditions including HIV/AIDS, cancer, Lyme disease, head injury, and infections. In many cases, symptoms may improve on their own and disappear within two to three months. In some instances, however, the damage is permanent.

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Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Jul 30, 2011

My aunt lives in the woods, and she likes to stay outdoors. She was always getting bitten by ticks, because they were everywhere. She got Lyme disease from one, and it caused cranial neuropathy.

She did not know that she had the disease for months. In fact, it was eight months before her cranial neuropathy caused her to develop bilateral facial palsy. That, combined with her other symptoms, led the doctor to test her for Lyme disease.

She was afraid that she had experienced a stroke. Once diagnosed, she had to receive antibiotics for 28 days intravenously, because the disease had progressed so far. Her facial palsy went away, but she likely will always experience muscle aches and fatigue.

By Oceana — On Jul 30, 2011

I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia two years ago. I had been experiencing shock-like sensations in my cheeks and jaw. The pain only lasted a few seconds, and it would come and go, but it really hurt.

My doctor tried alcohol injections. They temporarily numbed the area. They didn’t last long, though, and the pain returned.

Next, he prescribed me an anticonvulsant. This helped a lot more.

I did have an episode of extreme and prolonged pain that the anticonvulsants could not stop. For that, my doctor gave me a muscle relaxer. It knocked the pain out completely. I’m not supposed to take them very often, though, so I take the anticonvulsant regularly.

By orangey03 — On Jul 29, 2011

@StarJo - It’s scary when anyone you know experiences cranial neuropathy. My little cousin had damage to her seventh nerve that led to Bell’s palsy, and she was only ten.

She just woke up one day with one side of her face numb. The night before, she had told her mother that her face was twitching. When she looked in the mirror, she could see little involuntary tics around her lips. Her mother told her it was likely just muscle spasms and they would go away soon.

Imagine her mother’ s surprise when she awoke to find her daughter’s face partially paralyzed. She rushed her to the emergency room. She was very relieved to hear that the condition would go away on its own.

By StarJo — On Jul 28, 2011

A lady in her sixties who works with me developed cranial neuropathy. She has been diabetic for years, and that undoubtedly led to her condition.

She called in to work one day and said that she had Bell's palsy. We had never heard of that, and when she said the symptoms were kind of like a stroke, we were afraid she might never be the same. The condition does get better over time, however.

When she came back to work two weeks later, one side of her face still drooped. She could neither smile nor frown. Months afterward, she had recovered almost completely, though her mouth still had a slightly unnatural curve to it.

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