TMJ Disorders and Referred Pain — What You Need to Know

Temporomandibular joint and muscle, or TMJ disorders, can cause soreness in the jaw joint and chewing muscles, as well as discomfort and difficulty opening and closing the mouth. Some patients also experience painful grating or clicking in the joint.

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But what many people don’t know is that TMJ can also cause referred pain. And because this pain can often mimic the symptoms of other problems, TMJ may go undiagnosed.

What Is Referred Pain?

Referred pain is a medical term used to indicate discomfort, soreness or suffering felt in a part of the body other than the physical source of the problem.

For TMJ patients, symptoms can include a dull ache in the sinuses and cheeks or radiating pain through the jaw and neck. Headaches and earaches are also common. TMJ can even cause the teeth to hurt, much like a toothache.

Because patients often do not associate these symptoms with jaw joint problems, many cases of TMJ go undiagnosed. This allows the damage to progress unchecked and the symptoms to worsen.

Based on the referred pain symptoms, patients often blame allergies, sinus infections and stress or tension, all common problems that we often attempt to correct with medications.

What Causes Referred Pain with TMJ Disorders?

With TMJ disorders, this type of pain comes from repeated stresses on the physical structures surrounding the jaw joint. Wear and tear on the cartilage disk at the joint, the muscles of the jaw, neck and face, or the nearby nerves, ligaments and blood vessels can all lead to pain elsewhere.

When any of these areas is repeatedly stressed, trigger points can form. Trigger points are small, hyperirritable spots in the soft tissue that produce both pain on compression and pain in other areas of the head, face and neck.

The development of trigger points can also contribute to a decreased range of motion that is commonly associated with TMJ disorders.

Can Treatment Relieve Pain from TMJ Disorders?

When trigger points are in the early stages of formation, physical therapy can be effective. Some patients also find relief through other conservative, non-invasive treatments like trigger point injections, biofeedback and acupuncture.

In the short term, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or over-the-counter pain medications can help relieve referred pain. And in some cases, wearing a stabilization splint or bite guard can help alleviate symptoms.

However, conservative treatments are not always enough to rid patients of referred pain. If the symptoms persist, TMJ surgery may be necessary.

TMJ surgery is considered to be a last-resort treatment, but it can provide a permanent solution to the pain and restore jaw mobility. Arthrocentesis and arthroscopy are minimally invasive procedures that can be performed right in the oral surgeon’s office. For patients with more severe TMJ disorders, arthroplasty is done at the hospital, as recovery may require an overnight stay.

The professionals at Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery of Utah understand how disruptive the referred pain of TMJ can be, and our team can help relieve your symptoms. Contact one of our three convenient locations in Cottonwood Heights, South Jordan and Tooele today to schedule a consultation to discuss treatment options for TMJ disorders.