Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ, or, more accurately, TMD) is a syndrome that affects approximately 10,000,000 people in the United States. TMD is a poorly understood collection of symptoms that seem to originate from the temporomandibular (jaw) joint. For years it was bounced around like a hot potato between the dental and medical communities; in some ways, this still happens.
The presentation of symptoms does not necessarily include pain in the jaw, or even the classics: “popping” or “clicking” in the joint. This means that people who suffer from TMJ pain often are undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed. The most common symptom that is not directly related to joint dysfunction, is headache. TMD headaches can be ones sided (mimicking migraines); or two sided (complex migraines, tension headaches, or: we don’t know what is going on, and we need to run many inconclusive and scary tests to rule out the really bad stuff). These headaches are tension headaches, caused from clenching or grinding the teeth, building tension in the temporalis muscles (they are fan shaped muscles on your head; around, above and behind your ears). Tension headaches beginning at the base of your skull can contribute to TMD, and TMD can make these types of headaches worse. If you are prone to migraines, a TMD related tension headache can trigger a migraine. So if your major symptom is headache – you might want to discuss TMJ syndrome with your doctor or dentist. In an article from the Boston Globe: “If Doctors Can’t Help Your Headaches – Should You See a Dentist?” you will read about the benefits of seeking a dentist for help with chronic headaches.
How does Physical Therapy help? Well, in my practice, number one is: POSTURE. If we can’t fix your posture, everything else is palliative. There are many things we do to loosen the muscles, including electrical stimulation, ultrasound, heat, ice, and massage (massage is great, and proven effective for pain relief in TMJ). I have an earlier post on trigger points, which discusses how trigger points work, and mentions the benefits in the treatment of TMD.Trigger Trauma. Still; posture is key. By improving your posture, you take the stress off of the joints; not just off your jaw, it also relieves the stress on your neck and shoulders. Posture training and appropriate exercise also gives you more control of your health.
I was diagnosed with TMD 17 years ago. I am relatively symptom free unless I do something that I know is going to cause me pain, or throw me out of good posture – like wearing high heels. I do it very rarely, for very brief periods of time, and I know that I will pay, but it is a decision that I get to make. I also am in control of my diet. I have not chewed gum in 12 years – the pain that I will deal with for days after is not worth it to me. Carmel, on the other hand, is occasionally worth three days of ice-packs and begging my staff to treat me.
Stress (I mentioned that these are tension headaches, right?) is some what under our control. If you have a lot of stress and tension in your life, you have to get a handle on it. Learn to meditate, and make it a priority. If you are unable control your reactions to the stressors in your life (and yes, keeping your mouth closed, and pretending that things don’t bother you is a reaction,– clenching, remember?), please seek counseling. This is hugely important. Life happens, how you deal with it will determine how negatively it affects you. There is some basic information, and tips on how to deal with TMJ pain at my web-site: Slainte Physical Therapy .
There are factors that affect the joint that we don’t have a lot of control over. Changes in atmospheric pressure can worsen symptoms, especially if your temporamandibular joint has become arthritic. I live in Florida, hurricane season is hard on my jaw patients, and on me. Between the stress involved with the season, and the rapid weather changes, my office gets very busy. At that point it is just symptom relief, and trying to maintain as much of a positive attitude as possible. At least weather is not permanent.