I know I’m not alone in this, and that other dentists hear it all the time as well… We have patients come in to Jones Bridge Dental Care, complaining of headaches, and of course I ask if they have ever been screened for Temporomandibular Disorder (TMD), a disorder involving the jaw joint. Often, they have heard the term, but have no idea how it might apply to them. Many have managed their headaches with over-the-counter painkillers and prescription drugs, but none have considered their pain stems from their jaws … and they never thought to mention it to me.
As a dental surgeon, I’m trained in all structures related to oral health and dentition including the muscles and bones of the temporomandibular joint. Please don’t be put off by this 17-letter word. Temporo means temple, and mandibular refers to the jawbone (mandible). You can feel these joints – among the most complex in the human anatomy –just in front of your ears when you open and close your mouth.
TMD symptoms may include…
- Pain around your ears
- Tooth pain
- Clicking or popping noises in the jaw joint
- Jaw locking in an opened or closed position
- Facial swelling
- Humming or ringing in the ears
When the bone and soft tissue of these joints are injured, aggravated, and otherwise inflamed, pain results. But what are the causes of associated headaches? A partial answer is that these joints share a very nerve-rich environment in the cranial area so that pain can travel up and around your head. This is called referred pain and the trigeminal nerve which has three branches is considered to be a major culprit in this regard.
Another feature of these unique joints is that each has a pad or disk between the ball and socket which acts as a cushion, not only to accommodate its range of motion, but as a hedge against fracture. But it doesn’t take a broken jaw to slow you down. When this disk is irritated or injured, it can become inflamed leading to pain. Muscle and cartilage in and around the joint can also become inflamed, particularly if subjected to constant or severe strain. And once the inflammatory process begins it is very hard to reverse it without intervention. We use our jaw joints constantly, and they get little recovery time.
There’s no one cause for TMD, but potential causes of TMD facial pain and headaches, aside from facial trauma, are pressure caused by jaw-clenching and grinding, particularly at night, a dislocated joint disk, misalignment of the bite, and even poor posture has been identified as a contributing factor.
If your headaches are TMD-related, or if you are experiencing any of these other symptoms, in many cases, I can prescribe a small, comfortable appliance – a “nightguard” – that is custom-created for you and properly aligns the jaw to prevent clenching and grinding. However, if the bite appears mechanically misaligned or your problem is more complex, surgery could be an option.
One way to find out is to come see us at Jones Bridge Dental Care for a consultation. If there is a simple non-surgical option to relieve your chronic pain, then I’d like to see you consider it.