Because temporomandibular joint disorder is characterized by a number of symptoms that are common in other medical problems or health ailments, many patients suffer through multiple attempts at diagnosis before arriving at a neuromuscular dentist with experience in correctly assessing and successfully treating TMJ disorder.

But as a recent Washington Post article points out, there is another condition that may be mistaken for TMJ. Known as trigeminal neuralgia, this disorder exhibits many of the same painful symptoms of TMJ — including intense headaches often described as migraines — and stems from a craniofacial nerve that also plays an instrumental role in the discomfort associated with TMJ.

woman rubbing her jaw due to pain

The Misdiagnosis of TMJ Disorder

The article is a medical horror story about a man who experienced severe jaw and facial pain that grew progressively worse over a number of years, until it became, at times, physically debilitating. All the while, the man bounced from doctor to doctor, from general physicians to dentists to specialists.

Although this particular individual turned out to suffer from a different condition, his story is unfortunately typical among those with TMJ. This common jaw disorder is often misdiagnosed or undiagnosed despite the fact that there are effective treatments available.

The Trigeminal Nerve and TMJ Disorder

The subject of the article was actually misdiagnosed with TMJ disorder at one point, although doctors finally confirmed he suffered from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare nerve condition (dots to the proper diagnosis were initially connected in part by a yoga classmate of the man’s wife and a junior doctor). Trigeminal neuralgia originates in the fifth cranial nerve, also known as the trigeminal nerve, a far-reaching nerve that carries signals between the face and the brain, registers sensation in the face, and plays a role in biting and chewing.

Trigeminal neuralgia is often the result of a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve; pressure on this nerve can also be a factor in TMJ disorder. TMJ can also be caused by bite conditions (malocclusions) or jaw alignment problems, which place unnatural stress on the trigeminal nerve and other sensitive components — including its namesake temporomandibular joints — in the regions where the jaw connects to the skull.

Treating the Trigeminal Nerve

Unlike trigeminal neuralgia, to which surgery offers the most effective and long-lasting results, TMJ disorder can be treated noninvasively by a neuromuscular dentist.

There are a number of TMJ treatment options available, depending on the source of your unique condition. For some patients, occasional TENS therapy is effective; TENS uses a mild electrical current to relax the jaw muscles and allow the jaw to settle into a comfortable resting position. Other patients achieve relief from TMJ pain with the use of a neuromuscular appliance, or bite splint, to promote the jaw remaining in its ideal position.

If you or a loved one is plagued by chronic headaches, jaw pain and other vague symptoms that have evaded diagnosis and treatment, please call the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado at (303) 691-0267 to schedule your consultation with a qualified TMJ dentist. Dr. Kevin Berry has helped a number of patients from the greater Denver area find long-term relief from TMJ pain.