Out Of the Jaws—The Great Impostor
LARRY thought he was losing his mind. For seven months he kept hearing loud ringing and buzzing sounds. He went to an internist and also to an ear specialist. Neither could discover the cause of his problem.
Robert spent over $3,000 (U.S.) trying to cure his agonizing headaches. “I went to specialists, to hospitals all over the place . . . went through all the tests,” he said. The doctors prescribed drugs to kill pain and relax muscles, but the headaches continued.
For years Pauline suffered a nagging toothache. Her dentist found nothing wrong with her teeth and directed her to a doctor. The doctor sent her back to the dentist, who extracted a tooth. Holding the tooth to the light with the pliers, the dentist said: “This tooth is perfectly sound.” When the anesthetic wore off, the pain was back.
Though their symptoms differed, these three people had the same disorder. It is one that affects over ten million people in the United States alone. Because it mimics numerous other maladies, it has been nicknamed “the Great Impostor.” Many of its victims don’t know they have it. Most may never even have heard of it.
The disease is called TMJ (temporomandibular joint) syndrome.* In addition to the problems mentioned above, TMJ syndrome can also cause sore jaw muscles, facial pain, aching neck and shoulders, eye pain, sinus pain, dizziness, and even a loss of hearing. Because of these varied symptoms, TMJ disorders are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. As a result, many people go from doctor to doctor, specialist to specialist, unable to find a solution to their pain. Some, in despair, turn to psychiatrists, while others swallow painkilling drugs. But it is far better to make an appointment with a knowledgeable dentist. He can possibly bring relief—relief that is often painless and permanent.
The Impostor Unmasked
Consider the nature of the condition. The temporomandibular joints (each of us has two) connect the lower jaw, or mandible, to the skull. These joints enable us to move our jaw up and down, in and out, and even sideways. They are on the job whenever we talk, chew, yawn, swallow, or smile. The temporomandibular joints work along with a complex and interrelated system of ligaments, bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. In most people all of these work together harmoniously and cause no problem.
However, if the jaw is out of balance, the result may be excruciating pain. The situation has been likened to forcing a six-foot [180 cm] man to stand in a room only 5 feet 10 inches [175 cm] high. He may remain in a slumped position for a while without discomfort, but in time the pain can gradually become torturous. Similarly, when the jaw cannot maintain its proper skeletal position, the muscles must support it continuously. The result is the same as with the tall man under the low ceiling—pain.
The American Equilibration Society states that when the temporomandibular joints are misaligned, they can produce “the worst kind of physical stress because there is no way the body can find relief.” Unlike an injured limb, which can be rested, the jaw joints and related muscles are active all the time, day and night.
Commenting on the consequences of such constant stress on these particular joints and muscles, New York dentist Harold Gelb, an authority on TMJ problems, writes: “Stress makes the already tense muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders go into spasm. Circulation in these muscles will be limited because of their tautness, and where circulation is poorest, metabolic wastes will build up and form trigger points within the tissue. Trigger points can refer pain anywhere in the body; one in the shoulder can cause severe pain on the side of the head, mimicking migraines. . . . Because most of the stress caused by the jaw imbalance centers around the tissue of the head, neck, and shoulders, most of the symptoms occur in that region.”
What Causes TMJ Disorders?
But how do these joints get out of balance in the first place? Sometimes it is the result of a blow to the head, neck, or jaw. Incorrect chewing or swallowing habits may also be responsible. The most common cause, however, is malocclusion, a condition wherein the upper and lower teeth don’t meet correctly.
Often imbalance of the temporomandibular joints is aggravated by harmful oral habits, such as grinding or gnashing one’s teeth, clenching a pipe, chewing on pencils or pens. Or the imbalance may be aggravated by poor posture, such as when you lean hunched over a desk or habitually support your chin on your hand.
The American Dental Association explains that when the jaw muscles and joints are unable to work together properly, the result is often muscle spasm. Muscle spasm causes pain, tenderness, and tissue damage. In time the joints and muscles themselves become damaged, and their ability to work correctly is hindered even further. This leads to more spasm, more pain, and more damage.
What You Can Do
How can TMJ pain be stopped? Sometimes applying moist heat to the face will bring relief. Certain drugs may also help in some cases, but this is at best short-term therapy. Finding a permanent cure generally involves correcting bad habits that put stress on the temporomandibular joints and their associated ligaments, muscles, nerves, and so forth. It may also involve repositioning the jaw.
A particularly damaging practice is the clenching or grinding of the teeth. Normally, a person’s teeth should be slightly separated except when chewing or swallowing. However, about 40 percent of TMJ sufferers habitually clench their teeth when these should be separated, especially at night while sleeping. Usually, this tooth-clenching habit is a reaction either to emotional stress or to maloccluded teeth.
So, what can be done about clenching? Some have been able to break the habit by reducing or eliminating the emotional tension that causes it. Dentists have helped others by fitting over the teeth an unobtrusive bite plate (occlusal splint), which combats the harmful effects of clenching. Usually worn at night, this plastic device prevents the teeth from meeting incorrectly. Often, wearing this device brings immediate relief.
There are other things you can do to reduce tension in the jaws. Avoid leaning your chin on your hand. Don’t slouch over your desk, and don’t hold a telephone to your shoulder with your chin. Develop jaw movements that are relaxed and controlled. And don’t gnaw on pens or pencils.
What Your Dentist Can Do
If you are already suffering TMJ pain, you will likely need treatment from a dentist. Since the position of the teeth when the mouth is closed determines the position of the jaw, the dentist may decide to change the way the teeth meet. He does this by filing certain teeth and perhaps by building up others—a process called equilibration. This allows the jaw to assume a correct and comfortable position. Equilibration requires time and skill on the part of the dentist, but it is usually painless to the patient.
The results are often amazing. Robert, mentioned at the outset, had his bite readjusted in this way. “All of a sudden it felt like I had a whole lot of new teeth in my mouth,” he said. “And best of all, no headaches.” Someone else exclaimed: “It feels like I have a whole new mouth!”
Yet, despite the success in treating those who have TMJ syndrome, it is far from being fully understood. What, for instance, is the precise cause of the symptoms? And why do some who have severe jaw imbalance not suffer at all while others with only a slight imbalance feel tremendous pain? Is personality a factor? Also, exactly how is pain transferred from one part of the body to another?
The answers to these questions and others are being researched and debated by the doctors of dentistry. Yet, there is One who fully understands all the workings and complexities of the human body. This One has promised to bring to an end all the imperfections that cause pain and suffering to humankind.—Revelation 21:4.
In the meantime, if you suspect that you have TMJ syndrome, why not visit a dentist who knows about the great impostor? He or she may be able to help you.
It is also termed “TMJ dysfunction.”
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Is Your Jaw Out Of Line?
If you answer yes to the following questions, it may be.
1. Place your fingers on the sides of your face just in front of each ear, where you can feel your temporomandibular joints. Now open and close your mouth several times. Do you notice a clicking, crackling, or popping in the joints?
2. Next place the ends of your little fingers gently in each ear, pressing them forward toward the front of the ear. Again, open and close your mouth. You should feel your jawbone pushing against your fingers. Is it more noticeable on one side than on the other? Does it hurt to do this?
3. Do you sometimes have difficulty opening your mouth, or do you experience pain when opening it wide?
4. Do you have tenderness or pain in your jaw or face or around the ears?
5. Do you have pain when chewing or yawning?
6. Do you clench or grind your teeth in your sleep? (An indication that you do is awareness of sore or tired jaws when you wake up.)
7. Do your jaws get stuck so that you cannot open or close your mouth?