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  • Jihyuk Park

Can treating TMJ disorder help other pains?

Some patients with the jaw pain complain about pains in multiple joints. They say “my back, shoulders, knees, and even my head ache so much!” At first glance, the pain in the jaw may not seem to be related to that of lower back or knees. But it could be the case in which the imbalance in the body has caused multiple joint pains and, thus, call for a perspective to view them not separately, but as a whole.

Jaw joint can be an important place to understand the association of multiple joint pains, as symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD) are not limited to the jaw joint. The imbalance in the jaw joint often causes structural changes in the neck in a way that the alignment of the neck bones loses the c-shaped curve a normal, healthy spine presents. Then the lower back bones and the pelvic girdle move to compensate for the straightened cervical curve. This kind of chain reaction does not end here. For example, it can trigger the pelvis to be tilted and cause the legs to appear asymmetrical. As such, one knee is likely to bear more body weight over the other and this can be observed in your shoes. If you find one of your shoes with more wear in the heel than the other, the chances are that you are overusing one side of your body and would, if not already, experience pain in the spine or limbs.

What is more surprising is that the association of pains between TMJ and other joints is not confined to the structural level. In addition to causing a domino effect in the skeletal system, TMJ problems can transform the neural network. When the abnormal biting of teeth occurs due to the TMJ disorder, it creates a neural connection that signals chronic pain. In this case, pain can arise even if there is no stimulus.

Although studies are being done to find out a more elaborate mechanism of this process, researchers point to the plasticity of neural cells for explanation. Because one of the cranial nerves (trigeminal nerve) is located proximal to the jaw joint and spread throughout the teeth, TMJ disorder and related oral symptoms affect the nerve that runs close by and generate a neural pathway for chronic pain.

For those who are more susceptible to stress, TMJ disorder can create a vicious cycle of pain building on each other, as stress makes their jaw and neck muscles to contract and further deteriorates the imbalance of the jaw joints. In this case, an intervention to the TMJ can be an effective way to break the vicious cycle of multiple pains.



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