Stem cells that facilitate the growth of new cartilage and rejuvenate damaged joints have been identified in a joint that is prone to premature wear and causes discomfort in millions of Americans: the temporomandibular joint.

Temporomandibular joints are integral in connecting the jaw and the skull, and there is one on each side of the face. These joints enable the jaw movements we use to bite, chew and speak. to allow this wide range of function, the temporomandibular joints have a unique structure. This structure also make them vulnerable to damage, wear, and dysfunction. Which is why they lend their name to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), a common jaw dysfunction that results in painful symptoms including migraine-like headaches.

TMJ and Cartilage Damage

Cartilage is a tissue that links bones and joints and provides a cushion between them for smooth motion. The temporomandibular joint is lined with fibrocartilage, which is also found in the knee’s meniscus and the invertebral discs of the spine.

TMJ is sometimes the result of trauma that damages the temporomandibular joint or its fibrocartilage. Untreated TMJ or other conditions that place progressive stress on a temporomandibular joint may also contribute to early degeneration of fibrocartilage.

Fibrocartilage cannot heal or be regrown. The harm caused by injury or disease to fibrocartilage is permanent. At least for now.

stem cell

Stemming the Tide of TMJ

Researchers with Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine recently pinpointed stem cells within the temporomandibular joints that repaired fibrocartilage and generated new bone structure when transplanted in mice with temporomandibular joint damage.

In a series of experiments, the research team isolated fibrocartilage stem cells and demonstrated in both laboratory and live-animal scenarios that the cells formed new cartilage in the joint and new bone in the connective region. Researchers also identified a molecular signal that depletes cells in the temporomandibular joints and contributes to cartilage degeneration. Injecting a protein called sclerostin, which blocks that signal, stimulated cartilage growth and joint healing.

The findings were published Oct. 10 in the journal Nature Communications, and the authors believe their research could lead to a drug with a minimal risk for side-effects or rejection that could be injected in the affected joint.

TMJ Treatments

Although there are not currently options to regenerate damaged temporomandibular joints, there are treatments that can alleviate the discomfort associated with TMJ, and halt or slow the development of further damage. The best treatment option depends on the source of your condition, which can be assessed by an experienced neuromuscular dentist.

Many patients find lasting relief with the use of an oral appliance sometimes referred to as a bite splint. This device is similar to a sports mouthguard, and it is designed to hold your jaw in an optimal position.

Other patients benefit from correcting a bite condition, receiving occasional BOTOX® therapy, or undergoing TENS sessions that relax the jaw muscles and allow the jaw to settle into a comfortable position. Surgery is also an option, though it is rarely necessary unless the joint has suffered damage that prohibits jaw function.

Denver neuromuscular dentist Dr. Kevin Berry has extensive experience helping patients relieve the debilitating headaches and other uncomfortable symptoms of TMJ. If you suffer from unexplained migraines, chronic jaw pain, or difficulty opening and closing your mouth, please call the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado at (303) 691-0267.