“TMJ” is a term many people have heard but few know what it really means. The TMJ refers to the Temporomandibular joint, the connection between the jawbone and the skull. As many people who experience problems associated to it know, it can be very fickle. The official term for any dysfunction of the TMJ is actually termed TMD (Temporomandibular disorder), and there are wide-ranging symptoms that can all be traced back to problems with this joint. Just as oral health is directly related to systemic health, TMJ dysfunction can cause issues in other parts of the body as well.
Many times, these symptoms all start with how the teeth come together in your bite. If there is a dysfunction here, whether from worn, broken, or missing teeth, or from a lifetime of dental work, it leads to the joint not sitting correctly in the skull which results in strain on the muscles of the head and neck, as well as pressure being put on the disk of the TMJ. This can lead to signs we often associate with TMD like jaw pain and popping, but there’s also a myriad of symptoms many people don’t realize can be related to the TMJ including headaches, neck pain, poor posture, tingling or loss of sensation in the body or extremities, and congestion. The sophistication and wide-ranging effects of the TMJ really can’t be understated.
So the next question is, if you feel you have TMD, what can be done about it? There are multiple options but they all come back to one point, putting the jaw in a position to decompress and allow resting of the joint and muscles of the head. From a dental standpoint, this is often done by using a type of “orthotic” to stabilize the way the teeth come together. This is different and more specific and advanced than a “night guard” that many people use to protect their teeth from grinding and clenching. By allowing the muscles and disc to relax and reset, a lot of the problems related to the bite can be alleviated. People are often surprised that many of these debilitating problems are related to something seemingly innocuous like the way our teeth come together.
“Getting the bite right” can help long-suffering patients without more invasive treatments such as surgery. If someone thinks they are experiencing one or more of the many symptoms of TMD, a good place to start is to have a conversation with their dentist. They can then either treat or refer them to a TMJ specialist so they can be on the road to relief.
Dr. Baumann is with Palm Desert Smiles and can be reached at (760) 568.3602.