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TMJ – A Pain In the Neck

TMJ is a painful condition affecting millions of Americans, however many are suffering from its effects without proper diagnosis. Because “Temporomandibular Joint Disorder” is a mouthful, it is frequently shortened to TMJD or simply, TMJ.

TMJ – A Pain In the Neck

The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw (the mandible) to the skull (temporal bone) and the connection comes together right in front of each ear. That’s what you can feel moving when you open and close your mouth. This joint is the most complex joint in the human body, so its dysfunction could only be accompanied by a surpassingly complex pain disorder.

The most common points of discomfort associated with TMJ are the temporal lobe and the back of the neck, but are certainly not restricted to these areas. In fact, many people experience back, shoulder and neck pain as a result of TMJ.

So just why is this joint such a nuisance? Think about the many ways your jaw moves throughout the day – yawning, chewing and smiling, just to name a few. It is the only joint in the entire body that is bi-laterally hinged, meaning it moves forward and backward, up and down, and side to side. Additionally, there are ligaments and tendons in conjunction with nerves and muscles that support the jaw and its movements.

One important piece to this intricate puzzle is the Lima bean-sized cartilage nestled between the bones that makes up the joint. One of our hygienists, Alice, explains it like this, “Just like any other joint needs that cartilage, so does the jaw. And the more someone over-exercises their jaw or grinds their teeth, the more worn down the cartilage becomes. This creates less and less tissue to cushion the bones and, over time, can be reduced to bone-on-bone agitation.” As if the jaw isn’t already complicated enough, add teeth into the equation and that multiplies the complexities of the whole ensemble.

TMJ diagramThere are also numerous bad habits that negatively affect the jaw and can trigger TMJ. A few of these “micro traumas” are clenching or grinding the teeth, lip or nail biting, chewing on a pencil and biting the inside of your cheek. Others experience TMJ symptoms after a single injury such as whiplash or jaw dislocation.

The disorder can also be coupled with the diagnosis of a degenerative disorder like rheumatoid arthritis. While TMJ in most cases is not dangerous, it is inconvenient and can result in larger long-term obstacles. The outcome of untreated TMJ can range from fractured teeth, broken crowns and bridges to Trismus, or “Lock Jaw.”

Our RDH Claranne points out several things to keep in mind, “If you sleep on your side, or with your hands under your face, this can worsen TMJ symptoms. Heightened stress and TMJ pain are also directly correlated.” If you notice clicking or popping when you open and close your jaw, you might want to ask your dentist or dental hygienist about a simple test to determine if you could be experiencing side effects of Temporomandibular Joint Disorder. “There is a simple crepitus test we can do when patients come in and it helps us to diagnose TMJ,” Claranne says. Pay attention to your body’s aches, pains, and noises – there’s a reason behind them!

While there is no cure for TMJ and it won’t just go away on its own, there are treatment options, providing patients with solutions to manage the pain. Dr. Fox reminds us that not all solutions are what they seem. “Many patients actually develop TMJ when an old or ill-fitting mouth appliance creates jaw misalignment.” Over the counter night guards can actually harm your bite more than help it, so you should always consult with your dentist before purchasing one.

Dr. Fox also has a list of things he recommends patients try to alleviate TMJ pain. “Taking NSAIDs and applying warm compresses are simple fixes, and lightly massaging the temples can help. If the pain is still substantial and the patient is waking up through the night with trouble, I recommend a custom-fit night guard.”

For many patients and doctors alike, the approach to TMJ therapy can be frustrating when time after time, the above things are crossed off the list, carrying little to no relief. For these cases, Dentalways offers a series of TMJ therapy visits in which Dr. Khullar creates a customized therapy program, including muscle scans, joint sonography and a TENS unit. This gives him a much deeper look at the underlying root cause of the disorder. This therapy is not for everyone, as it’s a big commitment and estimated treatment costs start at $6,000. But for those patients who have exhausted all other options, he has had outstanding results.

If you’re interested in TMJ therapy with Dentalways, or are looking to be tested for the disorder, please give us a call at 501-753-7366 or fill out our Appointment Request form today.

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