This article first appeared in Today's Dallas Woman, June 1998

Lockjaw is no Joke

Spotting TMJ

They're pretty much common, every day symptoms: so common, that most of us tend to ignore them.

Maybe it's a ringing in the ears for no apparent reason. Or a persistent toothache with no cavity or root problems. Perhaps it's the stiff neck that just won't go away or discomfort in the jaw as you chew. Then there's those occasional bouts of dizziness or nausea experienced from time to time.

But these common, every day symptoms could be a signal of a deeper problem, one that's shared by 60 million Americans. It's called TMJ Dysfunction, also known as TMJ. It affects the temporo-mandibular joint (TMJ); a part of the body that connects the jaw to the skull.

Take a moment now to find your TMJ by putting your fingers in front of your ears and wiggling your jaw up and down. The opening that changes shape under your fingers is the TMJ.

In addition to being an easy joint to find, the TMJ is a busy one; it moves up to 2,000 times a day while you talk, chew or yawn. Much like anything that is used a lot, the TMJ can break down a lot. When out of alignment, the TMJ can cause a whole host of physical problems from head to toe. If you're wondering how such a small part of your face can effect your entire body, think about the TMJ as a hinge on a door.

If everything is well-oiled, clean and in working order, that hinge allows the door to open and close easily. But if that hinge breaks, becomes weak, or grows rusty, it develops an annoying squeak. If left unrepaired, that hinge eventually impacts the entire door. Not only can the door not open and close easily, it can sag in its frame, refuse to shut properly, or even break off from the hinge.

Just as many factors can destroy that door hinge, many factors can lead to TMJ. The most common cause of the condition is an injury or blow to the jaw. But even damage to a seemingly unrelated body part - such as the neck - can lead to TMJ. Those who suffer whiplash in a car accident often complain of jaw pain or temporary lockjaw, one of the symptoms of TMJ.

But TMJ doesn't necessarily have to be caused by blows or falls alone. Something innocuous like consistent hard chewing or prolonged dental work can precipitate TMJ. TMJ can result from stress-related clenched jaws and grinding teeth. Even an overbite, loss of teeth, or poorly fitting dentures can be TMJ instigators.

No matter what the cause, TMJ isn't just a jaw problem - it can impact the entire nervous system. The minor symptoms, including frequent headaches, toothaches, a "popping" or "clicking" jaw, neck pain, shoulder stiffness and ear problems are irritating enough. Left untreated, TMJ can lead to lockjaw, facial inflammation and spasms.

Even worse, prolonged cases of TMJ can effect the rest of the body. TMJ leads to stress in the skull, spine, and connective tissues that house and protect the nervous system. If the jaw is out of alignment and left untreated, it's a sure bet that other parts of your body will work to compensate. Some patients have leg and hand problems; all of which we've traced back to prolonged and ignored TMJ.

The good news is that TMJ is a treatable disorder at all stages. In many cases, treatment of the problem is a team effort. Chiropractors are frequently called into deal with TMJ patients by re-aligning neck, jaw and soft tissues that help contribute to the problem. Chiropractic treatment has proven to be effective in reducing pain and discomfort. In cases of teeth grinding and jaw clenching, a dentist may often make a night guard for a patient. These dentists may also recommend braces or other orthodontia to help bring an overbite back into alignment.

And for those TMJ patients who suffer from stress, yoga or biofeedback may be prescribed to help combat the anxiety that leads to jaw clenching and teeth grinding.

So the next time it seems more difficult to take a bite of apple because your jaw is stiff, don't just brush it off. By the same token, if you suffer from ear, jaw, neck or tooth pain and there's no apparent cause, don't ignore it. Consult your chiropractor or other healthcare professional to learn if your discomfort could be warning you of a deeper problem with your temporo-mandibular joint.

Suzan J. Smith, D.C., is a chiropractor in Carrollton. She teaches yoga classes on a regular basis. She has released a yoga video for beginners and intermediates and a second yoga video for pregnant women.

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