Sometimes, you will hear people or doctors refer to TMJ, which is the acronym for the temporomandibular joint, itself. The jaw joint, in front of the ear, is a ball and socket joint where the lower jaw (mandible) connects with the temporal bone of the skull. Between the two bones is a cartilage pad for cushioning. The jaw joint can be out of alignment. This gives what dentists call malocclusion, or a bad bite.
General dentistry, which we are all familiar with, treats teeth and gums, filling cavities, doing crowns, dentures, root canals etc. In recent years, with computers and lasers, dentistry has taken giant strides forward and expanded its conception of how to treat teeth. One of the new dentistry areas is neuromuscular dentistry, which looks at the jaw joint and its related structures – muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and other soft tissue – as well as teeth and gums. A neuromuscular dentist considers the whole face, head, neck and shoulder area when examining or treating dental problems.
Misaligned jaw joint
The causes of TMJ are not fully understood. It can be caused by trauma to the head that knocks the joint out of alignment, moving the cartilage pad or mandible from their correct positions. Sometimes it’s slowly caused by chronic tooth grinding, and sometimes by misaligned teeth. Genetic factors can play a part, and some systemic diseases and developmental abnormalities. It is thought that a majority of Americans suffer from TMJ to some degree or other, without knowing it.
When the upper and lower teeth do not meet correctly, the jaw muscles become strained. We open and close the jaw so many times each day, and this continual strain builds up in the muscles and related tissues, creating inflammation and swelling. This in turn can compress the nerves in the area, and the result is pain.
The most common and painful symptom is headaches. They are often thought of as migraines, and the sufferer may visit several doctors in search of relief. A series of pain medications helps temporarily, but does not treat the cause. A physician will not usually look at headaches as having a dental cause.
Each case of TMJ is unique, and there may be any combination of these symptoms:
· Jaw pain
· Neck and shoulder pain
· Ringing in the ears
· Popping or clicking sounds in the jaw
· Limited jaw movement
· Tingling in the arms or fingers
· Stiffness and fatigue in the jaw muscles
· Chewing discomfort
· Unexplained dental pain
· Unexplained tooth wear or chipping
It may seem mysterious that a jaw joint problem could cause symptoms in the shoulders or hands or ears. There are several large nerves in the facial areas, with many branches running through the entire head, face, neck, shoulder, and arm areas. One is the trigeminal nerve, the largest nerve in the body. These nerves with their many branches, register sensation in all the areas where they extend. When one part of a nerve branch is compressed, the resulting pain can be felt by other parts of that nerve.