TMJ is such a complicated condition to diagnose and treat because the places where our jaws meet our skull are complicated and confused places. This is partly because of all the numerous functions and systems that intersect and overlap at the body’s primary crossroads, but it’s also because of the burden of time that has overlaid numerous functions over time.
Take tinnitus, for example. We’re not entirely certain about the origins and causes of tinnitus generally, let alone how TMJ contributes to it, but we do have some clues. One clue is that our ear bones, the smallest bones in our body, used to be jaw bones, and their old function and their new are partly intertwined through the complex action of tiny ear muscles that are, to some extent, still jaw muscles.
Unrecognized Jaw Muscles
The three tiny muscles are the tensor tympani, tensor veli palatini, and stapedius may be small, but they still have important roles to play when it comes to hearing. The tensor tympani, for example, is connected to your eardrum, and when you hear a loud noise, it begins to contract involuntarily. Exactly why isn’t known, but there are two prevailing theories: it may protect the delicate hearing components from damage, or it may be intended to improve the transmission of these sounds. The tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini open the Eustachian tube to allow your ear pressure to equalize with outside pressure. The stapedius is the smallest skeletal muscle and it works to stabilize the stapes, the body’s smallest bone to help our hearing.
None of these seem like jaw functions, but they are actually intimately connected. The tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini are connected to the trigeminal nerve, and they often contract when we perform numerous voluntary actions of the jaw, such as speaking, chewing, swallowing, or yawning. In fact, these two muscles have to be coordinated with jaw muscles to ensure they open the Eustachian tube at proper times for equalizing ear pressure.
Jaw Dysfunction and Ear Symptoms
Since these ear muscles are controlled by the same nerves as our jaw muscles, it’s likely that they might be affected by some of the stimuli that can cause TMJ. When bruxism forces your jaw muscles to clench, these ear muscles might also clench. A similar situation might occur when your jaw is out of balance and your muscles are fighting hard against your jawbone and teeth to try to find a comfortable, relaxed position. This may cause your tensor tympani and/or tensor veli palatini to contract at inappropriate times.
Would this lead to tinnitus? Well, some people have conscious control of their tensor tympani muscles. When they cause the muscle to contract, they usually hear a rumbling sound. If the muscle were contracting involuntarily, who knows what type of sound a person might hear? In addition, inappropriate contraction of the tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini together might open your Eustachian tube at the wrong time, causing your ear pressure to become too high or too low, leading to ear stuffiness.
Although we’re not sure whether this is the true explanation of why TMJ causes tinnitus, we are sure that for most tinnitus sufferers, TMJ treatment can reduce or eliminate symptoms.
If you are bothered by tinnitus and are looking for help, please call 803-781-9090 for an appointment with a Columbia, SC TMJ dentist at Smile Columbia Dentistry.