Whether your TMJ disorder is the product of trauma, like a sports injury or car accident, or simply the shape of your bite, tension in the jaw can cause a host of problems. Over time without proper TMJ treatment, stress on the temporomandibular joint can weaken or damage the cartilage that protects the joint during day-to-day jaw movement.
Like the cartilage in the meniscus of the knee, and between vertebrae, the cartilage that protects the temporomandibular joint is known as “fibrocartilage” — and while it serves an important purpose, it also has a troubling weakness: Fibrocartilage cannot heal or regrow itself when it’s damaged.
Once that cartilage is damaged, treatment options become limited. In fact, the only current treatment for damaged fibrocartilage is a surgical joint replacement. And despite developments like fat grafting, surgical joint replacement has a history of unpredictable results, and is still not a very reliable treatment.
New Studies Present Alternative Treatment
Stem cells, which are immature cells that have the ability to develop into a variety of different tissues, have opened up groundbreaking opportunities for medical researchers, and it turns out they have an application for TMJ sufferers, too.
Researchers at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine had recent breakthroughs in their experiments with regrowing fibrocartilage. When stem cells were manipulated in animals with temporomandibular joint degeneration, researchers saw something incredible: the cells were able to spontaneously generate cartilage, repairing the temporomandibular joint. In fact, in one experiment on a mouse, a single stem cell was able to generate cartilage, bone, and even start to form a bone marrow niche!
What’s more, the stem cells needed for this treatment are already present inside the joint — completely eliminating the immense challenge of transplanting donor stem cells that other stem cell treatments can face.
This research could have a tremendous impact on TMJ treatment. The researchers’ goal is to use their findings to create a drug with minimal side effects that could be injected directly into the joint to regrow or heal cartilage damaged by TMJ. For a health issue that currently has only one treatment — and a subpar one, at that — the significance of these findings can’t be overstated.
Until Then, Nonsurgical Treatments Remain Best Option
Of course, this research is still very new, and remains in development. For now, the only treatment for the damage that TMJ can do to the jaw cartilage is still a surgical joint replacement. In order to avoid such a risky and unreliable surgery, your best option is to do your best to protect that jaw cartilage with non-surgical TMJ treatments. These put your jaw in a healthy, functional position that can reduce the risk of cartilage damage.
Jaw noises, such as popping or clicking, are a sign that your cartilage may be in danger, and so is irregular jaw motion. Not sure if your cartilage is at risk? TMJ dentists Dr. Adam Hahn and Dr. Paul Hahn are waiting to help examine your symptoms and get to the bottom of your TMJ problems.