TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder) is more than just jaw pain, it’s a type of chronic pain with far-reaching consequences. It even has the ability to rewire your brain so that you respond differently to touch–your body expects pain from the slightest contact–and the presence of pain makes it harder for you to think.

Every Touch Becomes Painful

Brain scans show that people with TMJ respond differently to physical contact. In response to a slight vibration of their index finger, people with TMJ had many more areas of their brain activate compared to healthy controls undergoing the same sensation. With even this slight sensation, the pain network seemed to ready itself for a response. And even though the vibration wasn’t audible, the hearing center of the brain activated in people with TMJ, but not in healthy controls. This may partly explain tinnitus associated with TMJ–hearing becomes linked to pain, so that when your body experiences pain, you may hear sounds.

The most important difference, though, is that the amygdala activated in TMJ sufferers. This is a region that controls the consolidation of new memories–it’s associated with learning. This may mean that your body is working hard to understand, predict, and learn how to prevent the constant pain of TMJ.

And, unfortunately, this introspective focus on your pain leads to cognitive difficulties.

The Cognitive Cost of TMJ

In another study, 17 TMJ sufferers and 17 age-matched healthy controls were assigned cognitive tasks. TMJ sufferers did worse on these cognitive tests because of the amount of effort that goes into keeping track of their pain.

TMJ sufferers were slower at completing tasks, and they had to use different regions in their brain than the healthy controls. Areas of the brain that normally work together in solving these tests were decoupled, making the brain less efficient. Emotional centers of the brain activated more in TMJ sufferers, which may be due to increased stress. TMJ sufferers also had to work harder to keep focus on the task and they dedicated more effort to planning and executing movements.

Researchers said that this may be due to the distractions provided by constant pain, which leaves fewer resources available for other tasks. TMJ sufferers may also devote more cognitive effort to simple movements in an attempt to avoid pain.

We don’t know how well TMJ treatment will allow you to restore normal brain function, but by eliminating pain, it may free up your brain to focus on more important things: your job, your family, and your life.

To learn whether TMJ treatment can help you, please call (303) 691-0267 for an appointment with a dentist at the TMJ Therapy and Sleep Center of Colorado in Denver.