There’s no question that those who suffer from TMJ experience pain as a result of the disorder. Aside from the obvious jaw pain that accompanies and embodies TMJ, patients also experience painful side effects like chronic migraines; pain in the face, neck, and shoulders; and even ear pain.
But is it possible that people who suffer from TMJ experience pain in a different way than the average person? One recent study decided to find out.
TMJ and Pain Sensitivity
Central sensitization is the phenomenon in which a patient experiences more pain over the course of repeated sensation, sometimes even with less provocation. For example, someone who experiences central sensitization might experience more pain from being touched with a lower temperature object the tenth time in a row than they did from being touched with a higher temperature object the first time.
This phenomenon is common, and is not in itself considered to be a problem. However, in people with chronic pain, it can make pain management more difficult and increase the intensity of day-to-day pain. Researchers also believe that those with chronic pain may experience central sensitization in a different way, thanks to possible differences in their nervous systems. The problem becomes even more complicated when you introduce opioid pain relievers to the mix, because these can also induce sensitization.
In the New York University study, patients with TMJ, patients with TMJ and fibromyalgia, and a control group that suffered from neither ailment were exposed repeatedly to a heated pad over a fixed period of time. Researchers intended to identify central sensitization by noting which participants found the heated pad to become more painful over time.
Strangely, the researchers were unable to find a statistically relevant difference in the likelihood of participants in any group experiencing central sensitization. However, they did find something else interesting: Participants with TMJ (including the group with fibromyalgia) were more likely to experience painful after-sensations once the heated pad was removed. The control group did not experience these same after-sensations.
What does this mean? Scientists aren’t quite sure. But what this study has shown is that TMJ patients experience pain differently than the average person. The researchers who performed the New York University study concluded that the pain processing mechanisms managed by the central nervous systems of TMJ sufferers have a kind of disturbance.
Treating TMJ Pain
Until scientists have a better understanding of how TMJ sufferers’ nervous systems impact their pain processing, all we can do is treat the disorder and the symptoms to relieve pain. The good news is, TMJ treatment can be extremely effective at controlling or eliminating pain.
Step one is getting a positive TMJ diagnosis. Once your dentist is sure that TMJ is the cause of your pain, there are a number of easy, drug-free treatments that can retrain your jaw to rest in the position of least tension and prevent further TMJ-related pain.