If you could give a relationship status to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), it would probably be “It’s complicated.” Besides its long-winded name, TMJ and its surrounding muscles are so complex and so crowded with nerve endings that the risk for something going wrong is pretty high.
So high that the TMJ Association reports that TMJ disorder (sometimes abbreviated TMD) affects about 12 percent of the population at any given time. Other research finds as many as 83 percent of people in certain populations have at least one TMD symptom. TMJ disorder is a broad term that refers not only to jaw joint issues but also to pain, discomfort, or dysfunction in the muscles that support the joint. But symptoms are so widespread and so difficult to assess that many people aren’t treated properly or are so overwhelmed by the condition that they give up on seeking help.
Our facial musculature is one complex part of a more complicated system, our bodies. For this reason, TMD patients often experience symptoms in other parts of the body way before they experience pain or discomfort in the actual TMJ area. For example, TMD patients often complain of headaches, neck pain, tingling or numbness in the hands, nausea, ear aches or ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and fatigue. With so many diverse symptoms, it’s no wonder that patients often end up running in circles trying to pinpoint their cause.
With so many symptoms to treat, some patients may feel as if they’re on a wild goose chase, from one medical or dental provider to another for help. A TMD patient may have started at a general dentist because they’ve noticed teeth grinding or clicking in their jaw. Or maybe they go to their family doctor to talk about headaches and get referred to a neurologist.
They may go on to a cosmetic dentist to correct chipped teeth, then an ear-nose-throat doctor for the ear symptoms. Perhaps on to an orthodontist to correct a bite alignment. While all of these treatments may each be successful treating TMJ disorder individually, this plan requires an exhausting schedule of appointments, medical bills, and treatments.
When in doubt, start with a neuromuscular dentist rather than a dizzying list of specialists. A neuromuscular dentist specializes in a malalignment of the jaw joint and bite. They measure jaw movements and jaw muscle activity together to determine your jaw’s natural rest position. The jaw’s natural rest position can allow the muscles around the joint to unclench and relax, relieving many TMD symptoms.