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In case you don’t know, TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint which is a fancy word for jaw joint. A lot of people have problems with their TMJs. The severity of symptoms can run from being minor nuisances like an occasional click in one of the joints, to incredible life altering pain.
A number of years ago, one of my patients told me about the TMJ pain that her mother was experiencing. Her mothers name was Betty and her pain was so intense, that she spent most of her time on strong pain medication. Between the medication, that caused her to be drowsy much of the time, and the pain itself, her life was all about just trying to get through each day. It was an absolutely horrible story.
Up until that time, Betty had gone through a number of procedures. The first was a series of “bite splints.” Usually made from plastic, it’s a custom fitted device that fits over the upper or lower teeth that is supposed to allow the teeth to glide smoothly against each other in order to allow the muscles of the jaw to relax. Over a period of time she tried 3 different splints with no improvement.
After that, surgery was suggested. She eventually had 3 surgeries performed on each joint. Once again there was no appreciable change in her pain.
Betty’s situation was becoming an enormous drain on both finances and emotions.
No matter how long you’re in practice, stories like this are still very upsetting. It was easy to see how much this was also affecting my patient, Betty’s daughter.
Chiropractors, including myself, have had a lot of success in treating TMJ problems. So of course, I strongly suggested to Betty’s daughter that she let her mother know about how chiropractic can help her situation and that I would love the opportunity to try. Unfortunately, there was a big catch to the situation; Betty lived in Chicago.
Betty and her husband decided to make the trek to Brookfield, Wisconsin to see if we could help. After an exam, x-rays and report of findings, I asked if they could come in for care 3 times a week for at least a month. They quickly said yes and I then gave Betty her first adjustment.
Over the next 6 weeks, Betty steadily improved. As her pain lessened she began to sleep better. She began to wake up much more refreshed. It was great to see her begin to participate in activities that she had given up on due to her pain.
With out a doubt, Betty’s situation was the worst case of TMJ pain I have ever seen. But we do see a lot of people with this problem. At any given time, someone is coming to our office for TMJ discomfort.
Some of the signs and symptoms of TMJ dysfunction include: pain in the chewing muscles or jaw joint, pain in the jaw, neck, or face, stiff jaw muscles, a jaw that locks or has limited movement, painful clicking, popping, or grating in the jaw joint, changes in the fit between upper and lower teeth, headache, neck pain, ringing in the ears or a sense of fullness in the ear that makes you suspect an ear infection.
A symptom that many patients will talk about is that they clench or grind their teeth, especially at night while in bed.
As to what causes TMJ problems, researchers agree that there are 3 things that can be the cause: 1. Some type of muscle spasm or dysfunction in the muscles around one or both jaw joints, 2. A dislocated disc in your jaw joint (jaw joints have discs much like the discs in your spine or knee), 3. Arthritic deterioration in one or both of the jaw joints.
Muscle dysfunction is by far the most common cause of TMJ problems. There are a number of muscles that operate the jaw. These muscles will cause the lower jaw bone or mandible to move in many different ways in order to properly chew and talk. If any of these muscles don’t function right; this will cause one or both joints to not mesh right, resulting in irritation, inflammation and then pain. If this situation persists long enough, it can result in deterioration of the actual joint, resulting in disc dislocation and/or arthritic deterioration.
Chiropractors believe that the major cause of muscle dysfunction, are “subluxations.” A subluxation is an abnormal nervous system habit pattern. These abnormal nervous system habit patterns can be caused by trauma to the jaw or repetitive motions such as one-sided gum chewing.
The focus of chiropractic care is typically in 2 areas. Reducing and eliminating the subluxation complex in the cervical spine and in the affected jaw joint itself. Even in severe cases, patients can quickly begin to notice a reduction in pain.
The whole focus of chiropractic care is to normalize the nervous system control of the muscles operating the jaw joint, causing the entire mechanism to operate correctly. Now that the joints are working easily and freely, in proper alignment, there is no more tension in the joints, the joints can then heal; inflammation can go away along with pain.
Remember, the thing that heals you, is you! Chiropractic can’t heal you. I can’t heal you. Only your inborn mechanism knows what is right for you, knows how to heal you, as long as there is no interference. My job as a chiropractor is look for interference in the nervous system, remove it and let nature take over and get you back on track!