“Use a mouthguard when you sleep. Take some pain medication. Just try to relax. Do what you can to minimize the stress in your life…” These are words that many people who suffer from TMJ disorders have heard before. Many patients go to their physician complaining about jaw pain, earaches, and frequent headaches, all common symptoms of a problem in the jaw joint. And many of these patients are told that their TMJ disorder is simply due to stress or anxiety. They try a mouthguard at night, some pain medication, and stress reduction techniques.
For some patients, this works, at least temporarily. For so many other TMJ patients, however, reducing stress and using a mouthguard just doesn’t work. They’re still in pain. Their jaw still clicks. It gets harder and harder to simply open their mouths to eat. When they look for answers, they’re told the same thing over and over again: it’s just stress.
Reducing stress can be, of course, an important step to relieving TMJ pain, but there are many other factors that may be at work and need to be examined, in order to ensure that patients find lasting relief.
The Relationship Between Stress and TMJ
Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life. Most of us have experienced stress at some point. Stress is simply our body’s natural reaction to certain situations. But feeling stress or anxiety for long periods of time is unhealthy and can have negative effects on our bodies. Too much stress over time can trigger headaches, insomnia, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, and increase your chances of having a heart attack.
Your body’s response to stress and anxiety can also lead to issues in the jaw joint. In response to stress, you may start clenching your jaw during the day or grinding your teeth while you sleep (known as bruxism). Keeping your jaw tight or grinding your teeth overworks your TMJ and can wear down the disc inside your jaw joint. Bruxism can also alter the alignment of your bite, which puts extra stress on the jaw joint and surrounding muscles. Over time, the jaw joint begins to break down, leading to a TMJ disorder.
A Vicious Cycle
Stress-related TMJ disorders can create a vicious cycle. In many cases, our body’s response to stress leads to the breakdown of the jaw joint. However, the pain and discomfort that comes with TMJ disorders can be extremely frustrating.
Patients who have been living with TMJ pain for a long time are prone to even more stress and anxiety, especially when they can’t find a solution to their problem. As these patients continue dealing with the jaw pain and earaches, their body responds to that continued stress. Jaws keep clenching, teeth keep grinding, and as a result, these patients have increased TMJ pain.
TMJ Disorders Are Not Always Stress-Related
To be fair to the practitioners who diagnose stress as a cause of TMJ pain, it should be said that it is true that some TMJ disorders have their roots in stress and anxiety. Some patients find relief, simply by finding ways to relax and by using mouthguards to reduce the effects of teeth grinding. Unfortunately, however, many patients do not experience relief in stress reduction, alone. Because there are often other underlying issues that lead to TMJ disorders, it is important to consider all factors, not just stress, before making any definitive diagnosis and comprehensive treatment plan to alleviate TMJ symptoms and potentially
Other causes of TMJ disorders include:
- Poor alignment of the jaw
- Poor posture
Even previous dental or orthodontic work that changed the alignment of the jaw or bite can have a negative effect on the jaw joint.
TMJ Disorders Require a Thorough Diagnosis
While stress is a factor to consider, it’s not the only factor. When it comes to diagnosing TMJ disorders, thoroughly evaluating the jaw joint is crucial to providing treatment options that actually fix the problem. Even in cases where the TMJ pain is caused by stress, a thorough examination of the jaw joint is necessary. We need to examine the TMJ area to determine the extent of the damage that has been done to the joint and to prevent further damage.
A thorough diagnosis is essential to providing patients with treatment options that actually work. The jaw joint is a complex system, but it is still a joint just like the other joints in the body. When patients come to us complaining about TMJ pain, we need to take the same orthopedic approach that we would take to evaluate knee or hip pain.
When a patient comes to us with jaw pain and other symptoms of a TMJ disorder, we \get a report of your medical history. We need to feel and listen to the joint. Finally, we will need to get scans so we can see the entire joint and look for t any damage.
We ask questions like:
- What do the ligaments look like?
- What about the muscles around the joint?
- How does the disc look?
- What does the alignment of the jaw look like?
- Is osteoarthritis a possibility?
Taking this comprehensive, orthopedic approach to TMJ disorders gives us the opportunity to truly help patients find relief. If we do determine that stress is the root cause of your jaw pain, we still need to make sure the treatment we offer will actually solve the problem. Our goal is not limited to just pain management, but rather to alleviate the underlying causes of that pain.
With PRECiDENT as your partner in health, NOW you can relax.