The majority of patients in my practice arrive complaining of TMJ pain. For many their pain is over the jaw joints. While others complain of pain only in their jaw muscles. These separate, but related, pain sites represent the components of a true TMJ pain problem. In fact, whether the pain is focused over the joints or in the muscles, it’s almost always the result of very specific factors such as teeth clenching or grinding during the night or day, daytime behaviors such as nail or cuticle biting, poor sleep, strained respiration, and/or chronic stress and challenging life circumstances.
I do see many patients, however, who experience severe pain in the jaw and face, but who display no evidence of common risk factors typical in the patients who have TMJ pain due to a temporomandibular disorder. For these patients, their pain is real but the cause is different. A very large percentage of them have a diagnosis of fibromyalgia in their medical history.
Is it TMJ or Fibromyalgia?
Although a full understanding of fibromyalgia remains unclear, fibromyalgia patients typically have a very low threshold of pain throughout their entire body. The best analogy is to imagine what it feels like to put on a shirt when your back has been burned from multiple days at the beach. That’s what it’s like to have fibromyalgia. All the time.
As a result common activities such as chewing, yawning, talking, or even putting their face on a pillow produces face and or jaw pain. This daily pain may often leads them to brace the jaw muscles and fatigue them. This can result in motion limitation and thus mimics a common TMJ problem.
Treatment strategies for fibromyalgia patients are markedly different than for typical TMJ patients.
When I work with typical TMJ patients I can isolate the factors that caused their problems in the first place and then help to control them. But if you are a fibromyalgia patient, it is much more challenging to manage your face and jaw pain. Treatment must focus on helping you acquire higher pain thresholds.
Through research we’ve discovered that meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, restorative yoga, exercises, a positive outlook on life, and even laughter can all be beneficial for fibromyalgia patients. In addition, certain medications show promise – particularly those designed to enhance your own pain inhibitory systems by helping restore and/or bolster levels of serotonin and endorphins. Injections of Botox coupled with frequent jaw motion exercises also show promise for specific jaw muscle pain in fibromyalgia patients.
In summary, facial pain symptoms are not always the same and require careful assessment before conclusions are reached with regards to diagnosis and treatment strategies. In my practice we see progress with both the common TMJ sufferer and those with jaw pain due to fibromyalgia.
If you’re in pain and are are need to know if it is TMJ or fibromyalgia, and you live in the New York City area, please feel free to call my office for a consultation. Outside the area you can find a list of professionals through the American Academy of Orofacial Pain.