The root causes of TMJ are still hard to understand. Most likely, there are multiple causes of TMJ, and that different people will benefit from different TMJ treatments. One possible explanation for TMJ is central sensitization, which might make many cases of TMJ very hard to treat.
What Is Sensitization?
In sensitization, your nervous system becomes primed to feel pain. It experiences pain in an exaggerated way, even experiencing normal pressure or movement as pain. Why this occurs isn’t always clear. There may be a genetic component, but often it’s likely that the cause is chronic pain that over time makes the body anticipate painful stimuli.
Sensitization can occur in two different patterns. One is peripheral sensitization, where it’s the nerves in your jaw, hands, or other places become more likely to send pain signals to the brain. The other is central sensitization where the brain interprets many sensations coming into it as pain.
Scientists often lean toward central sensitization as an explanation because it would account for why TMJ so often occurs along with other chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If the brain became sensitized, it would experience sensations from throughout the body as pain. This would also account for why it seems that people will develop TMJ first, then some of these other disorders after the brain became sensitized.
However, a new study throws some doubt on this possible link.
Sensitization Doesn’t Link TMJ, Fibromyalgia
Researchers tried to determine whether sensitization was more likely in people with both fibromyalgia and TMJ than in people with just TMJ. To test this theory, they took 168 women (43 controls, 100 with TMJ-only, and 25 with TMJ and fibromyalgia.
They exposed these women to painful heat stimuli and tested their degree of sensitization. They found that all the TMJ patients had greater sensitization, as measured by the lingering after-sensations of pain. But those with fibromyalgia didn’t have greater sensitization than those without fibromyalgia.
This shows that although sensitization likely has some role to play in TMJ, it likely isn’t the major link between TMJ and fibromyalgia.
Sensitization and TMJ Treatment
TMJ treatment with neuromuscular dentistry is largely aimed at reducing the amount of painful stimuli you experience. By putting your jaw into balance, the painful stimuli are reduced, which leads to a reduction of pain. This means that if you have developed sensitization, TMJ treatment can still reduce your pain (although maybe not as much as we might like). But it’s before you develop sensitization that TMJ treatment really makes a difference.
Sensitization often develops after long-term exposure to pain. People who have TMJ pain every day can develop sensitization if the condition isn’t treated quickly. But treating TMJ early may be able to circumvent sensitization and prevent the condition from becoming difficult or impossible to treat later. Early treatment of TMJ also prevents degradation of the teeth and jaw. So if you are experiencing TMJ pain you should seek care quickly.