Think you have an ear infection? The pain may actually be stemming from issues with your jaw. As strange as it sounds, ear pain and the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) are intricately connected. The TMJ connects your jawbone to your skull and allows you to eat and talk. It’s located near the inner ear canal and if the TMJ is inflamed, it can feel like your ear is in pain instead of your jaw.
You use your TMJ constantly which means it frequently ends up causing a lot of problems for people. Luckily, there are quite a few things our TMD team at Stanley Dentistry can do to help manage the pain and treat (and ultimately eliminate) the problem.
Do I have TMD?
If you’re wondering whether your ear pain is connected to a TMJ problem, there are a few questions you should ask yourself first. Very rarely does TMD present itself with only ear pain as a symptom. Typically, patients will experience a few different symptoms that all point to TMD. These symptoms include:
- Tinnitus (or ringing in the ears)
- Facial pain
- Jaw popping (may or may not be painful)
- Neck pain
- Bruxism (tooth grinding)
- Sleep apnea
Why do I have TMD?
If you’ve experienced a few of the symptoms listed above, there’s a good chance you have TMD. If your dentist specializes in TMJ, they’ll want to do a full work-up on your jaw to try to accurately pinpoint what exactly is wrong. This is where things can get tricky. TMD is notoriously hard to treat because it isn’t caused by one specific thing. Your doctor will need to do a thorough exam (and use a CT scanner) to get to the bottom of what exactly is wrong with your TMJ. A few common causes of TMD are:
- Arthritis: Different kinds of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis, are all frequent culprits of TMD pain for older patients. Arthritis of the temporomandibular joint can make your jaw feel painfully stiff, ultimately restricting your range of motion. Unfortunately, damage done to the jaw by arthritis is irreversible so most treatment plans focus on preventing further deterioration and managing any pain. Over 80% of jaw arthritis patients found relief through jaw rest, physical therapy, mouth guards, and/or other non-invasive treatments like botox and TENSing. Rarely, some patients have to undergo minimally invasive surgery if the pain cannot be managed with more conservative efforts.
- Clenching/Grinding: Stress isn’t just a mental thing — it also takes a physical toll on the body. People frequently grind or clench their teeth at night if they have airway issues (like sleep apnea) or if they’re experiencing a lot of stress. Clenching and grinding can both wear down your natural enamel (causing irreversible damage) and overwork your jaw, aggravating the temporomandibular joint. Avoiding stressful situations or creating better ways to handle stress may be the best and most cost-effective course of treatment for TMJ pain related to clenching. Your doctor may also recommend a custom orthodontic device to wear at night.
- Misalignment: Your jaw, airway, teeth, and mouth are all intricately connected. If one is out of whack, the others probably are too. One of the first things our doctors check for when completing a TMD consultation is dental misalignment. The way your teeth come together is a huge factor in how your TMJ is positioned. If your teeth aren’t coming together correctly when you bite down, your jaw is also struggling to get into the right position — which is what causes that persistent pain. TMJ patients with misalignment issues can find relief fairly easily through traditional orthodontics or, in certain cases, Invisalign. After undergoing treatment, patients are urged to wear retainers to prevent TMD flare-ups.
Where can I get help?
Finding a good dentist who’s willing to really look at your case isn’t easy. Dental school encourages dentists to just give TMD patients a nightguard and call it a day. Because of this, most dentists don’t do full TMJ workups — which means they rarely find out what’s causing the problem. When done right, TMD cases can be time-consuming and tricky. If you’re suffering from TMD, you need to find a dentist who’s willing to take on cases that may not be simple.
At Stanley Dentistry, we’ve helped hundreds of patients suffering from TMJ-related pain finally find relief. Give us a call to set up a consultation!