A horse is a horse, of course, but scientific research into the anatomy and medical conditions of animals like horses can also help us better understand our own bodies and health ailments.

One such area of focus is the temporomandibular joint and its role in temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ). Temporomandibular joints connect the jaw to the skull, and aid in functions like biting and chewing (and, in the cases of humans and Mr. Ed, speaking). TMJ is a common condition that can cause intense, recurring headaches and other uncomfortable symptoms, and in humans is often related to a bite condition or misaligned jaw.

woman petting her horse

TMJ, Equines & Us

Although the facial structure of horses differs in obvious ways from our own, there are many shared similarities, including the functions and relative positioning of the temporomandibular joints. Like us, horses also rely on these joints, which are located on each side of the face where the skull and mandible connect, to open and close their mouths, and to bite, chew and swallow.

As recognition of and research into TMJ in people has grown over the past decade, it has also been noted with increasing frequency in other domesticated animals, including horses. Recent research into TMJ in horses focused on the disorder’s impact on chewing performance, an area that can also be profoundly affected by TMJ in people.

Taking the Reins on TMJ in Horses

An April article in The Horse, a journal devoted to equine health care, discusses a 2015 study that evaluated the effects of TMJ-related inflammation on horses’ chewing abilities. While horses chew somewhat differently than people, many biting and chewing motions are similar; the primary difference is that horses chew rostro-caudally (or front-to-back) as well as vertically and side-to-side.

Researchers monitored jaw movement in two groups of horses, one with no dental or bony abnormalities, and another with medically induced, short-term inflammation of the temporomandibular joints. The horses with induced TMJ showed signs of discomfort and altered their chewing patterns; some horses even engaged in what is known as “quidding,” a response to oral pain which a horse spits out partially chewed food.

Diagnosing and Treating TMJ

One of the equine TMJ study’s lead researchers noted in the article that, as with people, TMJ likely goes undiagnosed in many horses. And as with TMJ in horses, one of the reasons so many people silently suffer from temporomandibular joint disorder is that they unconsciously alter how they bite and chew to compensate for TMJ symptoms like jaw pain and jaw sticking.

Without treatment, headaches and other problems associated with TMJ can progressively worsen. A knowledgeable dentist with experience in the field of neuromuscular dentistry, however, can pinpoint the source of TMJ and recommend an appropriate treatment to provide long-term relief.

TMJ treatment may involve occasional TENS therapy sessions, which employ mild electric current to deliver a relaxing massage to the jaw muscles. Some patients may benefit from an oral appliance, which is custom made to hold the jaw in a comfortable, natural resting position. BOTOX® has also proven effective in relieving TMJ pain in many patients.

Denver TMJ dentist Dr. Kevin Berry has helped many patients find lasting relief from TMJ headaches and other associated symptoms. Please call the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado at (303) 691-0267 to schedule your appointment.