One of the striking things we’ve learned dealing with TMJ patients is that their subjective experience isn’t given enough credit. People complain of pain in the jaw, headaches, neck pain, and more related symptoms, but they’re not taken seriously. People who don’t experience these symptoms just don’t understand a) how much we use our jaw each day and b) the level of pain people are experiencing.
But now a new study may help with that second problem. Research out of Duke University shows that head and face pain isn’t the same as other pain you may experience. Instead of just being physically painful, discomfort felt in the head and face also leads to serious emotional effects.
A Direct Link to Your Emotions
The new study looked at the way sensory input of pain was wired in the brain. It’s long been known that people who experience facial pain and headaches report greater fear and suffering related to their pain. This has even been confirmed by functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which shows that emotional centers are highly active when people experience headaches. People with migraines also report more disability related to their pain than other chronic pain sufferers.
To explain these effects, researchers looked at the way signals are passed in the brain. They wanted to see if pain and suffering might be related to the sensitivity of the neurons that handle the signals. If, for example, neurons carrying facial pain were more sensitive, it might explain why trigeminal neuralgia might be more frequent than in other nerves.
To find the reason why facial pain was so much more serious and emotional, researchers looked at the pain response by mice who were irritated either in their face or in a paw. They found that irritating the face led to higher activity in a region of the brain called the parabrachial nucleus (PBL), which is wired directly into the brain’s emotional centers.
To explain this, they traced the neurons that caused the activity and found that facial pain neurons were linked directly to the PBL, but pain neurons from other parts in the body weren’t. Signals only reached the PBL through secondary channels. This could easily explain why people feel so much more emotional drain from head and face pain than from pain elsewhere in the body.
We Can Help Deal with Facial Pain
Researchers hope that their treatment will help doctors in the future be better able to treat the emotional dimension of head and face pain. However, for now the best way to treat this pain is to prevent it, avoiding the excitation of the brain’s emotional centers.
If you find that your facial pain or headaches are a serious emotional burden in Columbia, SC, we can help. Please call (803) 781-9090 today for an appointment with a TMJ dentist at Smile Columbia Dentistry.