November is a lovely month in much of the country. Fall is firmly here with winter not far off, the holidays are just around the corner, and the thought of a delicious Thanksgiving dinner fills the hearts, minds, and kitchens of many Americans. However, November is also a special month for dentists and other oral health professionals as it’s TMJ Awareness Month and thus a chance to raise awareness and understanding about TMJ and the impact it has on the health of millions of people across the country. So, in the spirit of the season, let’s talk about TMJ, TMJ awareness month, and the link between TMJ and some forms of oral or mouth cancers.
What is TMJ?
TMJ is a shortened version of its full name: Temporomandibular joint disorder. Put simply, it’s a disorder of the joint connecting the lower and upper jaw, the temporomandibular joint, which results when the function of that joint becomes unbalance or misaligned and the bones, muscles, and ligaments no longer work together to provide a full range of painless motion. TMJ can be tricky to diagnose due to the wide variety of symptoms it can cause, but some of those include the following:
- Irregular or limited jaw motion
- Jaw pain
- Lockjaw/inability to open or close the jaw
- Popping, clicking, or grinding jaw
- Neck, shoulder, back, or face pain
- Chipped, worn, or cracked teeth
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Ear pain and stuffiness
- Numbness or tingling in fingers
As you might guess from the sheer number of symptoms, TMJ is a disorder with many potential causes that vary from patient to patient. Sometimes the cushioning tissues between the jawbones are misaligned or worn down. Arthritis is often to blame particularly in older patients. Muscle tension or malformation may be the problem for some people, while for others the ligaments connecting the jaws may have been damaged. It’s tricky to diagnose or treat TMJ on your own, so if you find yourself persistently dealing with any of these symptoms or a combination thereof it’s time to see your doctor or dentist and have them look at the problem.
Just as TMJ disorder has many symptoms and many possible causes, so too it has many different treatments. Which treatment your doctor suggests will depend on your symptoms and the root cause of your TMJ. Treatments may include stress management, physical therapy, a mouthguard to be worn at night, and medication are all common options. Occasionally surgery is required, but that’s not usually the case. Again, your doctor can help you understand the cause or causes of your TMJ disorder and help you through the right treatment to meet your needs.
TMJ and Mouth Cancers
As we’ve said, TMJ can be difficult to diagnose, and while rare there are some forms of oral cancers that can mimic TMJ symptoms and lead to a misdiagnosis. As we move through TMJ Awareness Month, it’s important for both patients and health care providers to remember this and raise awareness of the issue. When diagnosing or treating a patient with TMJ-like symptoms, it’s important to consider cancer as a possibility even if it is a remote one. Cancers that can mimic TMJ symptoms include:
- Sinus Tumors
- Acoustic Neuromas
- Thyroid disease
- Lyme Disease
- Tumors in the Salivary Glands
- Blocked Coronary Artery Tumors in the Neck
- Facial neuralgias
While these are all rare when compared to the many causes of TMJ, they are possibilities and health care providers should take care to consider a patient’s entire medical history when making a diagnosis
TMJ Awareness Month runs for the whole of November, so we hope this has helped you better understand the temporomandibular joint, TMJ disorder, and the role they each play in your health. Knowing the symptoms and seeking treatment early can lead to a much easier and more successful outcome, so talk to us today if you think you may have TMJ or a related issue.