When it comes to the most complicated systems in the body, the inner ear is towards the top of the list. This complex, fragile system is instrumental not just in detecting sound, but also in your sense of balance and spatial orientation. And when something is “off” about your inner ear, it can be very difficult to determine the cause and find the best solution.
Inner Ear 101
Your inner ear contains the vestibular system, which exists to coordinate balance and movement, keeping you upright. It does this via a network of canals filled with fluid. The hairs that line these canals are stimulated by the fluid, and relay information to your brain when the fluid moves. Your brain then correlates this information with data from other sources, such as your eyes and your proprioceptors–message cells that tell your body how its various elements sit in relation to each other. This is how your brain knows when you’re turning, falling, or upside down.
When those systems aren’t functioning as they should, your brain might be receiving or interpreting those signals incorrectly. Vertigo is a clear sign that something is being lost in translation between the inner ear and the brain–it usually occurs when messages from the inner ear don’t match messages from the other sources.
Vertigo refers to the feeling of being dizzy or off-balance. It can be caused by anything from trauma to stroke to infection — it could even be a side effect of prescription medication. Sometimes it’s accompanied by other symptoms, like nausea, headache, or tinnitus.
Due to the wide variety of potential causes, hunting for the root cause of vertigo can quickly start to feel like a fruitless task. But there’s one common cause of vertigo that is often overlooked: TMJ.
TMJ and the Inner Ear
The jaw and the inner ear may seem totally unrelated. But when you see the location of the vestibular system and the temporomandibular joint in relation to each other, the relationship becomes evident: They’re right on top of each other! And in our evolutionary ancestors the bones of the inner ear were actually jawbones. Muscle connections still remain from this ancient heritage.
This means that any misalignment or tension in the jaw joint can easily translate to problems with the inner ear. That’s why 50% of TMJ sufferers experience vertigo, 59% experience tinnitus, and 36% even experience hearing loss as a side effect of TMJ.
Simply put, TMJ is the misalignment of the jaw, leading to pressure and pain that can start in the jaw itself and stretch all the way down the back and even to the fingertips. When the jaw is forced into a position of tension, the entire body strains to compensate for it. The resulting disorder can cause symptoms like jaw pain, back and neck pain, headaches, and yes, inner ear problems.
To treat TMJ, the jaw needs to be brought back to its natural position, where it experiences the least tension. For some people, periodic TENS treatments (a sort of electric massage to relax the muscles of the head and face) might be enough to correct the issue. For others, a bite splint (similar to a mouthguard) can retrain the jaw muscles. For those who want a long-term solution, orthodontics or reconstruction dentistry can permanently correct the bite.