Quite often patients come to our office stating that they have been diagnosed with a TMJ problem due to the location of their facial pain and jaw pain complaints. Though statistically other than toothache pain, the most common facial pain problem is due to the jaw muscles (part of the TMJ system), there are a number of other pain problems that we see routinely. These problems are in fact distinguishable from TMJ problems in a number of ways.
Remembering that a TMJ problem is an orthopedic problem, similar to those in the knees, elbows or ankles, the complaints and findings should be familiar and predictable. For instance if you have a knee problem, there is a good chance that going for a jog or using the knee repetitively during exercise would increase the pain, noise in the knee, or the experience of joint instability. The same should happen in the TM Joint during chewing or keeping the mouth open such as during frequent yawning or sitting in the dental chair.
If a patient says that she* can open and close her mouth, chew whatever she wants, and maintains jaw opening without predictably increasing pain and or making it worse, it is likely that she does not have a TMJ problem. In addition, the pain of a TMJ problem is like that in an elbow that has been overused or strained overtime. The pain has an aching quality that typically is not gone completely during some hours of a day and miserable during other hours for no apparent reason. So, if it’s not a TMJ problem, what can it be?
3 types of Facial Pain that are NOT related to TMJ:
- Facial Pain referred from the neck and shoulders
- Facial Pain of nerve origin
- Facial Pain due to migraines
Pain From The Neck And Shoulders: These problems are related typically to muscles in the neck and shoulders that are in a state of tension. These tense muscles have the ability to refer pain to the face (pain location is frequently not the same place as the pain origin). The pain is often felt in the lowest part of the jaw and does not typically increase with chewing…even with bagels!!!! Examination of these muscles reveals tenderness and often can reproduce the pain in the face. These muscles often refer pain to the ear and teeth prompting medical and dental investigations.
Pain Of Nerve Origin: Though often labeled Trigeminal Neuralgia (which may be the diagnosis), there are a number of variations. The most important thing to remember is that these pains can often be present for seconds or minutes and then totally go away for no apparent reason or time frame. The pain is often sharp and described as excruciating (which, in contrast, is a word never used by a TMJ sufferer). The onset of the pain is often unprovoked but in the words of many patients, “it just comes out of nowhere.” Other nerve pain problems that may be more constant often having a burning quality.
Pain Due To Migraines: Facial pain, including toothache complaints, can be due to migraine problems. This pain often has an odd character, which may include a sense of numbness in the face, and again often do not relate to jaw use. The pain may be preceded by light and noise sensitivity and or a headache across the forehead or in the mid-face region. At times a sense of nausea may accompany these symptoms. Typically these pain complaints are not accompanied by limited jaw motion, jaw noises, or eating challenges.
*Note: facial pain can affect anyone, but the majority of sufferers are female
Dr. Donald Tanenbaum is a specialist with offices in New York City and Long Island, NY. He is uniquely qualified to diagnose and treat facial pain associated with TMJ, referred pain, nerve pain, and migraines. Find out more at www.tanenbaumtmj.com