Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) is a fascinating condition for medical professionals, including researchers, because it impacts millions of people and it is connected to many potential underlying causes.
The headaches, jaw pain and other discomfort associated with TMJ are often byproducts of a bite condition or a misaligned jaw, but TMJ disorders can also be caused by arthritis, erosion of the tiny discs that assist with jaw movement, and physical injuries. The connection between facial injuries and TMJ is sometimes overlooked in favor of assessing more severe problems, such as the potential for a concussion or other brain injury, and because the symptoms of TMJ are not always immediately evident.
TMJ and Athletic Injuries
Last week, professional soccer player Kristen Edmonds collided with another player during a match and took a blow to the side of her head; she was down for several minutes and had to be assisted off the field. Fortunately, a concussion was ruled out, and Edmonds suffered no broken bones; however, she did sustain a deep bruise to one of her temporomandibular joints, which connect the jaw to the skull and aid in biting, chewing, swallowing and speaking.
In the case of Edmonds, the injury was assessed and treated immediately. But athletes in many sports at all levels are susceptible to jaw injuries that seem comparatively minor and may not be accompanied by instant symptoms.
An early study of injury-related TMJ found that the impacts of trauma—which include temporomandibular joint degeneration—may be progressive as well as immediate. Later research that focused on TMJ problems in basketball players with histories of head and jaw injuries indicated that untreated TMJ could lead to worsening symptoms as well as other oral health problems.
TMJ and Whiplash
It’s easy enough to link a direct physical trauma, such as a blow to the jaw or head, to TMJ. But what about an indirect force, such as whiplash in a car accident?
A 2009 review of data found “conflicting evidence” about whether whiplash affected the onset of TMJ. However, it noted one study that observed more than 75 percent of patients undergoing treatment for injuries to the temporomandibular meniscus, the disc that works with the temporomandibular joint for smooth jaw function, reported having been involved in a traffic accident.
Research published in 2007 examined whether delayed TMJ pain and joint dysfunction may be caused by whiplash. That research concluded that about 1 in 3 people who experience whiplash trauma in an accident is at risk of developing TMJ symptoms that may require treatment.
Seeking Help for Jaw Pain
When discussing jaw pain, chronic headaches, limited jaw movement and other TMJ symptoms with your neuromuscular dentist or other doctor, it’s important to mention any past physical trauma that may have affected your face and jaw.
Depending on the type and severity of the injury, it may be weeks or months before these symptoms begin to emerge. They may also be accompanied by other TMJ indicators including neck and back pain, jaw clicking or popping, ringing in the ears, and difficulty chewing.
Denver neuromuscular dentist Dr. Kevin Berry is dedicated to helping patients achieve lasting relief from TMJ pain. He also offers custom mouthguards to help protect the mouth and jaw from the effects of physical injuries. Please call the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado at (303) 691-0267 to schedule your appointment.