In a comprehensive approach to dental care, making sure that you have a healthy TMJ has to be the starting point. You cannot restore a bite, restore a smile, or have anything that is going to function well long term for the patient, if the joints aren’t healthy. Fortunately, the majority of jaw pain is muscle pain that is often related to the bite. And if the bite is corrected and in harmony with where the muscles need to function, and the muscles can be calmed down and comforted. And a very small percentage of patients with jaw pain can actually be a problem within the jaw joint itself and many of these can be treated through splint and bite therapy but some of them have to be surgically corrected to get the comfort that’s needed. And all of that needs to be done prior to doing any major restorative work such as crowning teeth, changing bite, and other restorative work. So the foundation has to start with the joints that are healthy and comfortable and in good position. Then the bite can be constructed to be in harmony with that.
The first thing we do is a true assessment with each of our patients to find out if the joints can be loaded without pain, which they should be, similar to the knee or any other joint in the body. We do measurements of range of motion, such as how far can they open and move their jaw from side to side, is it even, do they open without their jaw deviating from one side to another Deviation would indicate a problem within the joint in most cases. We also listen to the joints with a Doppler ultra sound to give us an indication of the health of the joint itself, It all starts with a good assessment. Once we’ve got the assessment it’s going to give us a good idea in most cases whether the problem is a muscle problem (which it is most of the time) or if it is in the joint. Each is handled/addressed a little differently. In a lot of cases it is wise to utilize a full arch splint where we can recreate an ideal bite that fulfils all the criteria for a good bite in harmony with the joints without doing anything to the teeth until we verify that we can get them comfortable and get the joints in a good place and everything is healthy…And then and only then, should you start on any restorative treatment.
The splints we use are often diagnostic as well as therapeutic. Many of the problems have occurred over long periods of time. While many of them resolve instantaneously, many others take an extended amount of treatment to get them healthy. A joint with abnormal pressure over an extended amount of time may have inflammation or a change within the joint itself that have to change back as you get a proper bite. This is one reason splint therapy sometimes takes some time: the joints themselves will heal and remodel and you want to wait until that remodeling has completed before you start restoring the bite. If you restore the bite where the joint is when it’s not completely healthy that bite is going to change as the joint heals.
There are many, many causes for headaches, but the majority of headaches are muscle related. We hear a lot of patients talking about their headaches caused by stress. In many cases, people get headaches because of stress because they are clenching and their bite is not in harmony with their joints. Certainly not in all of them, but that is a big part of it. And when their bite is in harmony with the jaw joints and the muscles are relaxed, they are less prone to get headaches.
Many people complain of earaches when it may be TMJ pain. The physician may tell them that there is nothing wrong with the ear. Often times it’s an inflammation in or around the jaw joint that is making it feel like an ear ache. A lot of jaw pain is transient. It is brought on by stress and once the stress is gone then a lot of the symptoms will subside. That doesn’t necessarily mean their bite is really great but it does mean they can adapt to it…except during times of stress…and if they get their bite and jaw in harmony then it takes a lot more stress to bring on those symptoms.
Something someone can do in the event that they have an acute muscle problem is to use ice packs: 20 minutes on one side and then 20 minutes on the other side…for the first day or two of the acute episode. And then change that over into using moister heat after that and gently exercising their muscles…stretching, making sure they relax and don’t clench their teeth, get on a soft diet, and take mild anti inflammatory such as Advil.