The answer is simple, it is NOT. Yes, the anatomy of the TMJ is unique, but the underlying structures in the joint are similar to the hip, knee, shoulder, and elbow. In other words, the TMJ is a synovial joint just like the other movable joints of your body. Inside the TMJ joint, there are ligaments that help hold the joint in place, tendons (muscle attachments) to the bones, cartilage, synovial fluid, and an associated capsule. The anatomy of the TMJ is not that much different than the other joints in your body.
Why it important to understand the anatomy of the TMJ? It is important to realize that the TMJ is like other joints in your body, and you must take care of your TMJ just as you do your other joints. The TMJ is the articulating joint that allows your lower jaw to move at the base of your skull. It is the joint you use to eat, talk, drink, sing, smile, and laugh. This joint could be considered the most important joint in your body, but yet we tend to not think about it much. Unfortunately, when it does become painful or symptomatic most patients do not address it early and are often given advice that it will simply get better with time or on its own. Since the TMJ is so close to our ear, many patients think they have an earache or ear infection and the problem is misdiagnosed or treated incorrectly. Many patients are ignored when they describe their problem or are just given pain medications without any understanding of the problem. Your physician will most likely send you to the dentist or physical therapist. The physical therapist will try a series of adjustments and or exercises, while your dentist may try a variety of dental appliances or suggest adjustments to your teeth or bite. Unfortunately, many times all the recommendations and treatments you may receive will all be recommended without a true diagnosis or understanding of what the problem may be.
When you have a knee injury, what is one of the first things that your physician or orthopedic surgeon will do? In addition to a thorough exam, the physician will most likely obtain some imaging. This is usually covered on your medical insurance. Usually, the initial imaging is a radiographic or X-ray with a series of images that allow them to look at the bones of the knee and make sure that there is no underlying bone disease or damage. Secondarily, they will most likely also recommend an MRI. An MRI, otherwise known as Magnetic Resonance Image, allows the physician to see the soft tissues of your knee to evaluate the tendons, ligaments, synovial fluid, and integrity of the joint itself. This is also usually covered by your medical insurance.
Did you know that the evaluation of your TMJ requires the same approach as your knee? If you have an injury or painful TMJ, it should be approached just as a physician or orthopedic surgeon would approach your knee. The same diseases that occur in the knee such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ligament tears and disruption, fractures, and tumors can all occur in the TMJ just as they can in the knee. Radiographic images and an MRI are essential to understand the potential internal diseases of the TMJ and should be considered before any recommended treatment. These tests when ordered appropriately are usually also covered by your medical insurance.
The TMJ is an orthopedic joint and is a very important joint for your body. Take care of your TMJ, and seek help when symptoms occur. You do not have to live with your TMJ pain. Seek out a team that has a well organized and comprehensive orthopedic approach to managing your symptoms.
Dr. Scotty Bolding DDS, MS
Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon
For Your TMJ Health