If you have chronic jaw pain, you may be one of an estimated 10 million Americans suffering from temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD). If so, it's quite possible you're also coping with other health conditions.
TMD is an umbrella term for disorders affecting the temporomandibular (jaw) joints, muscles and adjoining tissues. The most common symptoms are limited jaw function and severe pain. Determining the causes for these disorders can be difficult, but trauma, bite or dental problems, stress and teeth clenching habits seem to be the top factors. Women of childbearing age are most susceptible to these disorders.
In recent years we've also learned that many people with TMD also experience other conditions. In a recent survey of TMD patients, two-thirds reported having three or more other health conditions, the most frequent being fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis or chronic headaches. Researchers are actively exploring if any systemic connections exist between TMD and these other conditions, and how these connections might affect treatment changes and advances for all of them including TMD.
In the meantime, there remain two basic approaches for treating TMD symptoms. The most aggressive and invasive approach is to surgically correct perceived defects in the jaw structure. Unfortunately, the results from this approach have been mixed in their effectiveness, with some patients even reporting worse symptoms afterward.
The more conservative approach is to treat TMD orthopedically, like other joint problems. These less invasive techniques include the use of moist heat or ice to reduce swelling, physical therapy and medication to relieve pain or reduce muscle spasming. Patients are also encouraged to adopt softer diets with foods that are easier to chew. And dentists can also provide custom-fitted bite guards to help ease the stress on the joints and muscles as well as reduce any teeth grinding habits.
As we learn more about TMD and its relationship to other health conditions, we hope to improve diagnosis and treatment. Until then, most dentists and physicians recommend TMD patients try the more conservative treatments first, and only consider surgery if this proves unsatisfactory. It may take some trial and error, but there are ways now to ease the discomfort of TMD.
If you would like more information on the causes and treatments of TMD, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Chronic Jaw Pain and Associated Conditions.”