Some estimates suggest that over ten million Americans suffer from temporomandibular joint disorder, more commonly known as TMJ. Unfortunately, the symptoms can be so varied that the disease is often misdiagnosed, or never diagnosed at all. This can lead to TMJ sufferers failing to get the treatment they need in order to reduce their pain and prevent the disorder from worsening.
If you recognize one or more of these TMJ symptoms in your own life, it may be time to speak to your doctor or dentist about the possibility that you may have a problem with your temporomandibular joints.
Jaw and Teeth Issues
The most obvious place for symptoms of TMJ to manifest is the mouth. Some symptoms, like jaw pain and a popping or clicking noise when you open your mouth, are simple to trace back to the jaw joint. But other symptoms, like grinding or clenching the teeth, can easily be dismissed as a sign of stress. When the temporomandibular joint is misaligned as a result of TMJ, it creates tension in the jaw and mouth that can cause bruxism (teeth grinding) and result in visible signs like worn, chipped, or broken teeth. If you find that you often have your jaw clenched, or if you wake up feeling jaw soreness, ask your dentist to check for wear and tear to your teeth at your next cleaning; these are physical signs of bruxism and may point to TMJ as a cause.
That tension in the mouth area caused by jaw misalignment can easily spread to other parts of the body. That’s why tension headaches and migraines are common side effects of TMJ. Worst of all, migraines are already so difficult to diagnose and treat that many undiagnosed TMJ sufferers spend their whole lives trying migraine treatments that can’t touch their pain — and never realize that TMJ treatment could’ve reduced or eliminated their suffering.
That tension can also spread to the neck, shoulders, and back, creating muscle pain and even impacting your posture. Poor posture is so common in people who spend their workday hunched over a computer, which is why this symptom is often overlooked as being related to TMJ.
Seemingly Unconnected Symptoms
Some symptoms seem so unrelated to the jaw that it wouldn’t even occur to the average person to connect them. For example, numbness and tingling in the fingers can be a common symptom of TMJ. This may sound strange, but the reason is pretty simple: The nerves that connect the spine to the fingers run right through the neck muscles that TMJ can create tension in.
Similarly, your ears may not seem related to the jaw, but they actually sit right on top of jaw joint. They’re also linked evolutionarily. Two of the tiny bones in the ear developed from what were jaw bones in reptiles, and they retain muscle and nerve connections. Issues with the jaw can put pressure onto the delicate, complex ecosystem of your ears. This can result in ear pain or stuffiness, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and even dizziness, since the inner ear is so important to balance. In fact, ear-related symptoms are common, affecting perhaps as much as 80% of people with TMJ.