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Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) pain: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

We’ve known for years that there is an association between neck and jaw pain as we’ve seen many patients who have neck pain go on to develop TMJ pain and dysfunction. So what, exactly, is the TMJ and neck pain connection, and how do we know for sure that it exists?  It seems, according to one study, that the answer lies in the jaw muscle and how neck pain alters how it contracts. We’ll dig deeper into this in a moment, but first, let’s review the TMJ and neck pain.

The TMJ Defined

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint connection between your jaw and your skull. If you run your fingers along either side of your jaw line toward your ears, you can actually feel where the jaw bone ends and the skull bone begins. If you open and close your mouth, the difference between the two is dramatic as the jaw bone moves, thanks to the TMJ joint, while the skull bone remains stable. The TMJ and any of its surrounding structures can become painful and inflamed, and this can become so bad that it can prevent patients from even being able to move their jaw bone to chew. This is why you often hear of patients with TMJ pain and dysfunction only being able to consume liquids or blended foods.

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) pain? What Causes TMJ Pain?

What causes temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain? Temporomandibular joint disorder is often caused by an injury to the jaw joints or surrounding tissues. The following are other TMD causes:

  • Teeth grinding at night
  • The disc between the ball and the socket is dislocated
  • Arthritis in the TMJ.
  • Stress.
  • Acute trauma.
  • An improper bite.

What are common TMJ symptoms?

TMJ abnormalities are most common among people between the ages of 20 and 40, with women having a greater incidence than men. The following are some of the most frequent TMJ symptoms:

  • Jaw and neck pain
  • Headaches.
  • Earaches (a sharp pain resonating from the inner ear).
  • Pain in the shoulders.
  • Difficulty opening your mouth wide.
  • Locking of jaw.
  • Clicking, popping, or grating sounds in the jaw joint
  • Difficulty chewing.
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in your ears.
  • Changes in the way your teeth fit together.
  • Swelling on the side of your face.
  • Tooth pain.

A Deeper Dive into the Symptoms of TMJ

Cervicalgia / Neck Pain

Cervicalgia is also known as neck pain, which is an all-too-common, unpleasant pain. Read here to learn the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. We will discuss other causes for cervicalgia. What symptoms are associated with cervicalgia? How is cervicalgia diagnosed? What are the treatment options for cervicalgia? Cervicalgia is a medical term used to describe neck pain. It is very common and affects approximately 2/3 of the population at some point in their life. Cervicalgia is the 4th major cause of disability. Risk factors include injury, prior history of neck and musculoskeletal pain, jobs that require a lot of desk work, low social support, job insecurity, physical weakness, and poor computer station setup.

Read More About Cervicalgia / Neck Pain

Chronic Headaches

Do you suffer from chronic headaches? Maybe it’s a daily issue, maybe once a week, maybe even less often, but one thing’s for sure—when a chronic headache kicks in, it can be a real pain in the neck, literally. In order to effectively address chronic headaches, you have to first determine if the pain is caused by a problem in your neck. Let’s take a look at a few neck issues that can cause headaches: Weak neck muscles – The head, on average, weighs about ten pounds, so when the neck muscles are weak, it can make your head feel a bit like a bowling ball that your neck can’t quite balance. There are many muscles that, along with the cervical spine, work together to help support the neck and aid movement…

Read More About Chronic Headaches

Neck Pain and Dizziness

Our body’s balancing system is compromised of three separate systems that work closely together to keep the body in balance: the eyes, inner ear, and upper cervical spine. The upper cervical spine contains and processes information about your position in space and communicates this information to your eyes and inner ears via nerves. There is a constant highway of electrical signals between the cervical spine, inner ear, and eyes that keep us upright, make us aware of our position and enable us to walk, move and run. This balancing system requires the inner ear, eyes and cervical spine to be operational…

Read More About Neck Pain and Dizziness

Shoulder Pain When Reaching Across Body

Shoulder pain can make simple chores almost impossible.  Have you ever reached for an object high on a shelf only to have pain that takes your breath away?  What causes shoulder pain when reaching across the body?  What is shoulder impingement?  What does shoulder impingement feel like?  Can a shoulder X-ray show shoulder impingement?  What are the treatment options for shoulder pain when reaching across the body? ulder impingement and rotator cuff injuries are among the most common causes of shoulder pain (1).  Both can cause shoulder pain when reaching across the body. Shoulder impingement is a painful condition in which the bursa and muscles of the shoulder are pinched or compressed. 

Read More About Shoulder Pain When Reaching Across Body

Stiff Neck

Conventional wisdom states that stiff neck symptoms can be treatable with nonsurgical remedies. However, not all stiff neck symptoms are benign, and leaving the stiff neck untreated can lead to a limited range of motion that can affect your overall health and quality of life. A stiff neck can cause pain, tightness, popping, and clicking noises and sensations and affect daily activities. A detailed examination of stiff neck symptoms can determine the exact condition affecting the stiffness of one’s neck. Where does the neck hurt? Neck stiffness can occur at the base of the head, down to the shoulders. This can be associated with pain, crunching noises, or popping sensations and may…

Read More About Stiff Neck


Remember the ringing in your ears after a loud rock concert or highly charged sporting event? It is that ringing or buzzing sound that slowly improves the next day over several hours.  Unfortunately for some individuals, the ringing in the ears is not due to an external event.  Even worse is it does not resolve over time.  This condition is called tinnitus.   It is a medical condition characterized by ringing or other noises in one or both ears NOT caused by an external sound.   Other individuals cannot hear the ringing that patients describe. It is a common problem.  It affects approximately 15-20% of individuals. 

Read More About Tinnitus

Why Patients with Neck Pain May Be Developing TMJ Pain

The jaw joint and the neck may seem like two entirely separate structures, but as we’ve mentioned many times, the body is one interconnected machine, and as such, we can’t examine the body as a collection of individual parts; we have to examine it as one functioning unit. When there is neck pain, this can cause the neck muscles whose job is to stabilize the neck to give up and stop working. It’s even possible the nerve supply from the cervical spine in the neck has been cut off from the muscles, perhaps due to a pinched nerve or disc issues, and this, too, can cause the neck muscles to shut down.

When something takes the neck muscles off-line, one theory is that the jaw muscles then step in to attempt to provide backup stabilization for the neck, something they weren’t created to do. In other words, the jaw muscles are now working overtime to not only do their job but to hold the head up as well. This, of course, can overload the TMJ and all of its surrounding tissues.  The TMJ can become severely damaged from all of the excess work.

In that scenario, patients with neck pain would have alterations in the functioning of their jaw muscles when compared to those with no neck pain. One study found just that. Let’s review.

New Technology Maps Muscle Contraction of Jaw

As the world of medicine progresses at what seems like light-speed at times, new technologies come down the pike that allows clinicians to better diagnose and treat patients. It was indeed a new technology—a high-density surface EMG—that provided this TMJ and neck pain connection by mapping how the supporting muscles were contracting. While before this new technology, we could study how many contractions occurred in a muscle, we couldn’t study if parts of it had a normal or abnormal contraction.

Researchers mapped jaw muscle contractions in patients with and without neck pain. The masseter muscle in the jaw was one area of focus, and the activity in this muscle was distributed differently in patients with neck pain when compared to those without. Patients with neck pain also activated, or used, this muscle more often than those without.

Non-Surgical Treatment of TMJ

Always Examine the Neck and TMJ as One Unit

At the Centeno-Schultz Clinic, we’ve always examined the neck and TMJ as one unit. One patient’s story shares a good example of why we do this. Valerie had severe TMJ pain and dysfunction and had been told she needed a jaw replacement. When she made her way to our clinic, Dr. Centeno was able to treat not only her TMJ nonsurgically using advanced orthobiologics but also her neck and other structures that were also damaged and contributing to her TMJ disorder. Watch Valerie’s moving TMJ story below.

Now that a study supports that there is a TMJ and neck pain connection and that these patients who have lost the activation of the stabilizing neck muscles are now using their jaw muscles for head support, it confirms what we’ve always known: the key to treating patients with TMJ disorder and neck pain may also be to treat the neck.

Denver Doctors that Provide TMJ Treatment

Denver TMJ Specialist

Christopher J. Centeno, MD

Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in Interventional Orthopedics and the clinical use of bone marrow concentrate in orthopedics. He is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with a subspecialty of pain medicine through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Dr. Centeno is one of the few physicians in the world with extensive experience in the culture expansion of and clinical use of adult bone marrow concentrate to treat orthopedic injuries. His clinic incorporates a variety of revolutionary pain management techniques to bring its broad patient base relief and results. Dr. Centeno treats patients from all over the US who…

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John Schultz, MD

My passion and specialization are in the evaluation and treatment of cervical disc, facet, ligament and nerve pain, including the non-surgical treatment of Craniocervical instability (CCI). I quit a successful career in anesthesia and traditional pain management to pursue and advance the use of PRP and bone marrow concentrate for common orthopedic conditions. I have been a patient with severe pain and know firsthand the limitations of traditional orthopedic surgery. I am a co-founder of the Centeno-Schultz Clinic which was established in 2005. Being active is a central part of my life as I enjoy time skiing, biking, hiking, sailing with my family and 9 grandchildren.

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John Pitts, M.D.

Dr. Pitts is originally from Chicago, IL but is a medical graduate of Vanderbilt School of Medicine in Nashville, TN. After Vanderbilt, he completed a residency in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. The focus of PM&R is the restoration of function and quality of life. In residency, he gained much experience in musculoskeletal medicine, rehabilitation, spine, and sports medicine along with some regenerative medicine. He also gained significant experience in fluoroscopically guided spinal procedures and peripheral injections. However, Dr. Pitts wanted to broaden his skills and treatment options beyond the current typical standards of care.

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Jason Markle, D.O.

Post-residency, Dr. Markle was selected to the Interventional Orthopedic Fellowship program at the Centeno-Schultz Clinic. During his fellowship, he gained significant experience in the new field of Interventional Orthopedics and regenerative medicine, honing his skills in advanced injection techniques into the spine and joints treating patients with autologous, bone marrow concentrate and platelet solutions. Dr. Markle then accepted a full-time attending physician position at the Centeno-Schultz Clinic, where he both treats patients and trains Interventional Orthopedics fellows. Dr. Markle is an active member of the Interventional Orthopedic Foundation and serves as a course instructor, where he trains physicians from around the world.

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Matthew William Hyzy, D.O.

Doctor Hyzy is Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (Physiatry) and fellowship-trained in Interventional Orthopedics and Spine. Dr. Hyzy is also clinical faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; In addition, Dr. Hyzy is an Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor at The Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Hyzy also maintains an active hospital-based practice at Swedish Medical Center and Sky Ridge Medical Center. He is also recognized and qualified as an expert physician witness for medical-legal cases and Life Care Planning. He is published in the use of autologous solutions including…

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Brandon T. Money, D.O., M.S.

Dr. Money is an Indiana native who now proudly calls Colorado home. He attended medical school at Kansas City University and then returned to Indiana to complete a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation residency program at Indiana University, where he was trained on non-surgical methods to improve health and function as well as rehabilitative care following trauma, stroke, spinal cord injury, brain injury, etc. Dr. Money has been following the ideology behind Centeno-Schultz Clinic and Regenexx since he was in medical school, as he believed there had to be a better way to care for patients than the status quo. The human body has incredible healing capabilities…

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