This post has been updated and can be found here.
If you’re someone who suffers from TMJ, you’ve likely tried numerous strategies to feel better. Jaw problems show up as facial pain, jaw pain, and even persistent toothaches, any of which can ruin the quality of your life. The good news is that everyday studies are done and discoveries are made that help get to the bottom of what causes these problems, which helps us find new and innovative TMJ treatment strategies to tackle them.
As an orofacial pain specialist*, my life is dedicated to helping people just like you and it enables me to be at the cutting edge of what’s working and what’s not. At the end of 2017, I took a little bit of time to reflect on the strategies that are helping my patients, some of which are a bit “out of the box”. I thought I’d share them with you:
1. Healing Is A Process
The most important thing I want you to understand is this: Healing is a process – not an event. Only when the risk factors that got your jaw in trouble in the first place have been identified, can TMJ treatment strategies for healing be put into place. Most jaw problems come on slowly and that’s how they resolve…slowly. Treatment takes time. And, I can’t stress this enough: you must be an active participant if your healing is to be successful. That means doing the exercises, wearing the oral appliance, practicing the meditation techniques, etc. Patience is key.
2. Anti-Depressants Could Be A Culprit
Although not the most common scenario, some of my patients who are on SSRI anti-depressant drugs such as Paxil, Effexor, Prozac, and Lexapro experience increased muscle pain in the neck, face, and jaw. I came to this realization by the process of elimination. There were just too many patients in my practice who had none of the typical risk factors. All of them were on SSRIs. With the involvement of their prescribing physicians, switching to alternative medications or taking a lower dosage provided them with profound pain relief. If you’re on an SSRI, you may want to speak to your doctor about adjusting your meds.
3. Sleep Quality & Quantity
The quality and quantity of sleep you get is one of the clues I look for when evaluating a patient. If you have insomnia or a sleep-related breathing disorder (obstructive sleep apnea, for example), it must be addressed before we can commence a TMJ treatment strategy to ease your persistent pain problem.
4. Lowered Pain Thresholds
Many people suffer from acute jaw, facial, or tooth pain because their overall pain thresholds have dropped. The most common cause is simply the way they live their lives. By consistently burning the candle at both ends (long work hours, little sleep, lots of stress) you keep your body in perpetual fight or flight mode. You may not be able to change your job or keep your baby from crying all night, but I’ve discovered that Chinese temple exercises or Tai Chi for just 30-45 minutes a day can work wonders for people like you.
5. Night Tooth Clenching & Grinding
Bruxism, which affects more than 10% of the population, disrupts the quality of sleep and wreaks havoc on the jaw muscles. If you habitually clench and grind, there’s no way your muscles can heal. There are many ways to stop this damaging behavior including special oral appliances and meditation techniques, all of which over time are very helpful. But again, positive outcomes will depend upon your commitment and participation to the TMJ treatment strategies that are designed for you.
Despite industry claims, it’s unclear if any supplements are truly effective for pain relief. However, some of my patients are convinced that Fish Oil and Magnesium help with pain relief. Some take turmeric daily, too, and swear by it. If you’re going to go the supplement route make sure your physician is aware and involved.
7. Food As Medicine
Research has finally identified some foods that can substantially reduce nerve sensitization and inflammation, both of which cause pain. Grape seed extract, organic chicken broth, and cocoa (72% dark chocolate) combined with other TMJ treatment strategies can help diminish pain-prompting risk factors. Unfortunately, the research is in its infancy and I can’t recommend specific quantities; but moderation is always a good mantra.
People with chronic pain are known to breathe fast and shallow. This rapid breathing causes excessive amounts of carbon dioxide to be expelled and can lead to high levels of muscle tension and nerve excitation in the body. And, rapid breathing makes it harder for your body to use oxygen. For many patients, the treatment strategy involves slow-paced belly breathing, yoga classes (particularly those that focus on the breath), meditation (Headspace.com is a great app to help you learn), and overall mindful living.
By caring for TMJ patients for over 35 years I’ve discovered two important things. The first is that taking the time to discover who my patients are (not just as patients, but as people) is the only way to put the right TMJ treatment strategies into place and successfully help them get better. And secondly, the patient’s full participation is required all along the way.
There’s no good reason that you should have to suffer from persistent jaw, tooth or face pain for the rest of your life. I hope you found this article helpful.
I wish you the best of luck on your journey to healing.
* Orofacial Pain is the discipline of Dentistry which includes the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients with complex chronic orofacial pain and dysfunction disorders, oromotor and jaw behavior disorders, and chronic head and neck pain, as well as the pursuit of knowledge of the underlying pathophysiology and mechanisms of these disorders.