Identifying the origin of a patient’s chronic orofacial and TMJ pain is what makes my work both challenging and rewarding. Sometimes the answers are readily apparent while at other times uncovering important clues is more difficult. In all cases, there is no substitute for obtaining a careful history as the insights gained often help point to the mechanism of pain that is driving a patient’s suffering.
With this thought in mind, I’ve treated numerous patients whose chronic orofacial and TMJ pain is the result of unresolved trauma to the nervous system. A careful history, however, reveals that this trauma is not because of a physical event such as a documented injury or ongoing activities such as nighttime bruxing, but instead, it is the result of personal anguish.
I’ve treated many patients whose problems are not caused by classic scenarios, but instead, are caused by unresolved trauma to their nervous systems. They feel they have no control over their lives, that there is no resolution to their grim situation, or are unable to escape a potentially dangerous environment.
These scenarios are commonly associated with individuals diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
These patients are not unlike our servicemen and women who return from overseas carrying the trauma of what they experienced. Although in my practice, military service is not the most common source of patient problems, these patients need just as much understanding and support as our soldiers.
PTSD Affects The Nervous System In A Specific Way
When dealing with a highly traumatic event or many persistent traumatic events over time, the body’s sympathetic nervous system goes survival mode. In medicine, it’s called the hyperactive state.
When the nervous system is in the hyperactive state for an extended length of time, tissue injury often occurs. It can be accompanied by pain, restricted motion in the joints, muscle cramping, and muscle fatigue. The body also releases stress hormones (primarily cortisol), which can cause biologic changes that prevent healthy healing and can lead to chronic pain. This particularly affects muscles that are already overworked or tense.
When a patient previously suffered from issues such as migraines, neck pain, or back pain – they invariably get worse. When the pain becomes persistent, that’s when feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and depression can emerge.
A patient in this condition has trouble reacting to stressful situations in a healthy way, which creates even more life challenges.
PTSD & TMJ – A Case Study
“Jill” is a 39-year-old woman who arrived at my practice with the classic symptoms of TMJ: ongoing jaw pain, jaw tension, and limited jaw motion. Not unlike hundreds of other patients, her symptoms were the result of jaw muscle and joint tissue compromise.
However, upon examination, I did not detect the telltale signs of nighttime bruxism, nor any of the most common origins of chronic orofacial pain.
The next step was to sit down with Jill and see if I could get her to talk candidly about her life, which she did. It turns out that Jill is a single mom. She works full time, and her job is stressful and demanding. On top of that, Jill has another, even more, extreme stressor in her life. Her child was born with a severe medical condition, of which there is no cure, that requires constant care and monitoring.
Faced with the overwhelming pressure of raising a medically-compromised child, working at a stressful job, and constantly worrying about the future, Jill had been living in a continuous flight-or-fight mode for years.
As a result, Jill’s natural state was shoulders raised, quick, shallow breathing, and a tendency to brace her jaw muscles or clench her teeth for minutes, even hours, at a time.
Can A Combination Of PTSD & TMJ Be Treated?
So the question was, can someone like Jill, who problems are caused by the stress in her life that she can’t change, actually get better?
The road is not easy, but when a patient participates in TMJ treatment, there is hope. Meditation, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, physical therapy, Tai Chi, breathing exercises, or other techniques, are useful. Being aware of and working to change daytime behaviors such as jaw bracing, tooth contact, breath-holding, and shoulder raising can also help.
It was not fast or easy, but by employing a number of these strategies, Jill continues to be “much better than the day I met her.” She takes fewer over-the-counter pain medications, sleeps more soundly, and most importantly, she believes that a better day is coming for her.
While it’s often impossible for someone suffering from PTSD to change her environment, she can make changes to how she exists within that environment. This can lead the way to unravel the complexities of PTSD and its associated symptoms.