TMJ dysfunction syndrome is a common joint ailment, yet curiously, the many sufferers of it find they have few obvious treatment options to resolve it. It can be a distressing affliction, diminishing the enjoyment of even the simplest of life’s pleasures, such as eating a meal or having a conversation with a loved one. Singer LeAnn Rimes has long documented her struggle with TMJ syndrome on Twitter and Facebook, and in 2013 even took time away from singing to have surgery on her jaw.
Often, the pain will quickly arrive out of nowhere, and the sufferer will discover that far from having the healthy jaw they had taken for granted, they have a damaged meniscus, arthritis or ‘slipped condyle’. Even worse, there may be ‘nothing wrong’ with the joint itself, leaving them floundering as they try to define, label and analyse what is happening to them. Although this information is all useful to have, it is not a complete diagnosis, as it doesn’t illustrate why our bodies have behaved this way in the first instance. To solve the puzzle that is TMJ dysfunction, we must first begin with why.
The TMJ joints are small, but they take up a lot of nerve cell space in your brain; Greys Anatomy estimates that the face and TMJ use an incredible 2/3 of the cells in the brain. This means that dysfunction in the TMJ can cause problems and be caused from other areas, and are associated with issues that may not be immediately recognized as being related. If one leg is shorter than the other, the body will become unbalanced. As any dentist will confirm, your jaw works the same way; if your teeth don’t meet evenly, it will have an effect on even remote areas of your body.
The TMJ is part of the ‘Stomatognathic’ system, which includes the cranium and its connections to the pelvis, the teeth, the hyoid, the neurological reflexes controlling head position, and muscles of the neck and the head. It is because of these complex interactions, that TMJ dysfunction can have consequences for vision, balance, voice and breathing, spinal function, emotions, and, of course, singing!
Getting to the root cause of any jaw problems can be a frustrating and confusing experience; so-called ‘TMJ Syndrome’ simply means a group of symptoms that have been pushed together and given a name for classification, it is not a condition with a prescribed remedy. Treating the classification is often an unreliable way to achieve optimal health and wellbeing. Years ago, I realised that the TMJ is an area of the body that always compensates for other parts of the stomatognathic system. This means that although you may be emphatically feeling the effects of pain and inflammation in your TMJ, the true cause is more likely to be nerve interference in your upper neck, a cranial distortion, or a pattern of dysfunction in your neurology. This can pose a dilemma for those trying to resolve these issues, as looking for a cause away from the site of pain may sometimes feel counter-intuitive.
Think about it this way; your brain is constantly sending messages to the TMJ instructing it where to be positioned, and controlling the muscles of the hyoid, chewing muscles, and all of the muscles involved with speech that attach to, or affect, the TMJ. The TMJ is also intimately related, in a functional sense, to the neck and sacrum. That leaves many opportunities for the nerves affecting the TMJ directly or indirectly, to become irritated or impinged, altering the function of the TMJ, and setting the scene for problems down the track.
Conversely, the only way to completely resolve the problem will be to identify and remove any sites of nerve interference, restoring normal function to the area, and allowing the joint the time to heal. Splints, and the like, prescribed to relieve some of the immediate stress on the joint, may help to alleviate pressure in the short term, but will not be able to correct any nerve dysfunction in the body. A simple trip to your chiropractor may be an easy way to have your functional neurology tested in relation to your jaw, alleviate any nerve pressure, and begin the road to recovery. Rather than looking for external fixes, the answer may lie within.