TMJ Therapy and Sleep Center of Colorado | 1660 S Albion Street, Suite 1008 | Denver, CO 80222

The Mysterious Phenomenon of Referred Pain

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dreamstime_xs_25862486Have you ever wondered why eating ice cream or drinking a Slurpee gives you a headache? Or why shooting pain in your arm is a symptom of a heart attack? These are both examples of referred pain, when pain in one part of your body (such as your mouth or heart) is felt in another part of your body (such as your head or your arm). This strange phenomenon is actually very common, and understanding it can help you see the connection between some of the chronic pain you experience and its root cause.

Understanding the Cause of Referred Pain

We often talk about the network of nerves in our body as if it were a network of wires or fiber optic cables that carry information in our modern age. However, our nerves are made up of living cells in an organic network. Whereas a wire is connected between two specific points and will only carry signals from the one point to the other, your nerves are connected in many ways, and designed to pass signal in multiple directions. It’s even possible for nearby nerves to get excited when one nerve is firing pain signals.

Your brain understands this, and the final part of you becoming aware of pain is when your brain makes a judgement call about where the pain is coming from. Usually, it’s accurate, but sometimes it’s not, which is when we experience referred pain.

Adjacent Nerves and Referred Pain

The most common cause of referred pain is that the two nerves involved, the one that is actually reporting the pain and the one your brain thinks is reporting the pain, are adjacent somehow. Often, they’re on the same branch nerve, such as the trigeminal nerve, which is supposed to report pain from your temple as well as your mouth, which is why you experience brain freeze in response to cold foods and drinks.

Or, they may enter the spinal column at the same point, such as the nerves from your left arm and those from your heart. This is also why you may experience shoulder pain from illnesses in your stomach, gallbladder, liver, and other internal organs.

Learned Referred Pain

Other times, you may experience referred pain between two regions that don’t have adjacent nerves. This most often happens after you suffer an injury, and your body learns to expect pain from the injured area. Long after your injury is healed, your brain may mistakenly refer new, unrelated pain to the injured area.

All referred pain is, to some extent, learned. For example, your brain refers stomach pain to the shoulder because it has learned that pain is more likely to be coming from the shoulder than the stomach.

Referred Pain and TMJ

TMJ is responsible for many potential pains. It can cause pain in your face, your head, your eyes, and your teeth, as well as jaw pain. That’s because all these areas report pain along the trigeminal nerve. TMJ can cause pain by either resulting in pain in your jaw, which may be referred elsewhere, or a displaced jaw or jaw muscles can irritate the trigeminal nerve, resulting in pain that comes from the nerve but is referred to any of the tissues the nerve reports from.

That’s why TMJ treatment can result in the reduction or elimination of so many different types of chronic pain.

To learn whether your chronic pain is caused by TMJ, please call (303) 691-0267 at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado in Denver today for an appointment.

We Look Forward to Seeing You!

TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado
- Dr. Kevin Berry
1660 S Albion Street #1008
Denver, CO 80222

(303) 691-0307

Monday - Wednesday: 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
Thursday: 8:00 am - 1:00 pm