Let’s assume for the moment you experience these symptoms: headaches, earaches, ringing in the ears, nausea, fatigue, neck pain, and numbness and tingling in the hands and fingers. What kind of a healthcare provider would you see first?
You probably didn’t say your dentist. After all, your teeth and gums don’t seem to be the problem, right? Yet, your dentist could be the person best equipped to solve your problem, because the cause of these symptoms could be temporomandibular joint dysfunction or TMD.
The condition — which is sometimes called TMJ (the name of joint) or TMJD, as in TMJ disorder or dysfunction — is a broad term to describe jaw pain and dysfunction. It is typically related to something structurally off with the hinging joint itself or a problem with the muscles that support it. Or it could be both.
That clicking sound some people hear in their jaw may be a precursor to more serious TMD problems around the corner. But people who experience these symptoms rarely make an appointment with their dentist — at least not at first. Instead, they visit a long line of physicians until finally, as a last resort after no one alleviates their pain, they turn to their dentist.
The reason some physicians misdiagnose these cases is because typically they are not well-trained in jaw problems, which are considered a dentist’s domain. On the other hand, dentists often lack a solid understanding of the joint because they tend to be passionate about teeth, not orthopedics.
TMD is far from a rare disease. The TMJ Association reports it affects about 12 percent of the population at any given time, and other research by the National Institute of Health finds as many as 83 percent of people in some population segments have at least one TMD symptom.
Clinicians who look at the patient’s full medical history, life circumstances, stress levels, and sleep patterns are the most successful in treating TMD, which is usually only completely cured if it’s strictly an orthopedic issue. Most TMD patients have some neuropathic pain (meaning its cause is in the brain, not due to trauma to healthy tissue.)
Stress reduction techniques like deep breathing and meditation can help reduce the pain until the issue is resolved. Other approaches that may work include physical therapy to relax the face and neck muscles, oral-appliance therapy, acupuncture, massage, and diet and behavior modifications (such as eliminating gum chewing). These options should usually be considered before deciding on surgery.
Many people have been told by healthcare providers that they can’t get better and they will have to live with their pain for the rest of their lives. They’ve been told the way they live now is their norm.
But today’s norm doesn’t have to be tomorrow’s norm. I see patients every day who are ultimately able to turn their lives around. With the right treatment, they are able to free themselves of pain and lead a life filled with energy that lets them take on the day.
Dr. Daniel Klauer, DDS, is author of Achieve Your Victory: Solutions for TMD and Sleep Apnea. Since 2013, Dr. Klauer has limited his practice to treating patients with craniofacial pain, TMD and sleep breathing disorders.