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The TMJ and Neck Pain Connection

tmj and neck pain connection

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.

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 allow 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 much contraction occurred in a muscle, we couldn’t study if parts of it had 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.

The Neck and Jaw Should Be Examined 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.