The sinuses have an important job. They are lined with mucus that traps bacteria in the air before it enters the lungs. They also help humidify and filter the air we breathe.
But despite their importance, the humble sinuses often don’t get noticed unless they become inflamed, swollen, or infected. This often happens because of a virus such as a cold, allergies, or a sinus infection. When one of these problems arises, you may be saddled with an excruciating sinus headache. You may also have the characteristic runny nose, sneezing, and congestion.
Like the sinuses, our temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is vitally important for our health. It is comprised of the bones, ligaments, and muscles that allow us to open and close our mouth. Without a properly functioning TMJ, necessary functions like eating and drinking become painful or difficult. Speaking and swallowing are also affected.
And yet, the TMJ and all its hard work are often taken for granted as well — until it starts to cause pain. Common causes of TMJ pain include injury, overuse, tooth and jaw alignment problems, stress, and tooth grinding. Pain, misalignment, and/or inflammation of the TMJ is known as a temporomandibular disorder (TMD).
Sinuses and the Jaw: Their Connection
What you may not realize is a sinus problem can trigger or aggravate an existing TMD. Indeed, the sinuses and the jaw have a close relationship that can lead to ongoing pain. The problem is, TMD may not be diagnosed right away (or at all) if the medical professional isn’t well-versed in TMJ health and its connection to the sinuses and facial structures. So, people go on living with TMD pain for months or even years because this key issue doesn’t get addressed.
That’s why it’s so important to be aware of how TMD relates to the rest of the body. Here, we explain why TMD and sinus problems are so interconnected, how to know if this is happening to you, and what to do about it.
Reason #1: The sinuses and the TMJ are adjacent to each other.
Humans have sinuses in the cheekbones, between the eyes, and above the bridge of the nose. They occupy a lot of space in the face and, when some of that facial space swells or becomes infected, any pain and pressure can easily make its way over to your jaw.
This usually means you end up with facial or jaw pain, a more severe headache, earaches, trouble sleeping, and pain when talking or chewing. If you’ve already got a stuffy nose and sinus pressure, you’ve got a recipe for considerable pain and discomfort that can put you out of commission for several days or more.
It may be difficult, however, to determine whether your sinuses are the problem or whether it’s your TMJ. Often, it’s both. Antihistamines and decongestants provide relief from sinus pain and pressure to some extent, but if the TMJ is also aggravated, the pain will continue. Taking pain relievers may provide short-term relief, but the pain will persist if the inflammation in the TMJ is not addressed.
Reason #2: Sinus problems lead to mouth breathing.
When the sinuses are congested or irritated, the natural reaction is to bypass them by breathing through the mouth. But keeping the mouth open puts stress on the jaw that it’s not equipped to handle, especially if you already have stress or grinding issues. The jaw is forced into an unnatural position for breathing throughout the day and night and may become further inflamed, leading to yet more pain.
For this same reason, people who are prone to allergies often suffer from TMD as well. They become so accustomed to mouth breathing that they don’t realize they’re doing it.
Reason #3: Both the sinuses and TMJ can affect the ears.
Earaches are extremely painful. But, they’re not always due to a cold or ear infection, especially in adults. As we’ve discussed in other blogs, TMD can cause ongoing ear pain. It can be difficult to get the correct diagnosis because a doctor may look inside the ears and find no visible signs of infection. So, a person is sent on their way and the ear pain continues.
A sinus problem also affects the ears because of the well-known ear, nose, and throat connection. Extra fluid or mucus in the sinuses and nasal cavity also lends itself to buildup in the ear and pain. But, this problem can be magnified if a person’s TMJ isn’t in alignment or if they have been grinding their teeth. The pressure of the sinuses combined with pressure on the joint itself can manifest as an excruciating earache.
Recognizing TMJ and Sinus Symptoms
If you have a sinus issue due to a cold, allergies, or chronic sinus inflammation (sinusitis), you may notice:
Stuffy nose and difficulty breathing through the nose
Yellow or green mucus in the nose
Trouble with smells or tastes
Upset stomach or lack of appetite from excessive nasal drainage that gets swallowed
Ear pain and pressure
Pain in the throat
Pain, tenderness, and swelling in the face, especially around the eyes and nose
Now take a look at some of the symptoms of TMD, and how they overlap with sinus problems:
Jaw pain or soreness after eating or talking
Jaw popping or clicking
Headaches, which may occur when waking in the morning, after eating, or during periods of stress
Lack of appetite due to pain that occurs after eating, and inability to enjoy chewy or crunchy foods
Ear pain and pressure
Pain in the neck, back, and shoulders
Pain, tenderness, and swelling in the face, especially around the sides of the face, above the mouth, and near the ears
Notice that the bolded symptoms are shared between these two issues. Not only can these two problems mimic each other, but they can actually compound each other, making symptoms like ear pain, jaw soreness, and headaches much worse. This means that someone with a sinus problem and TMD together will likely have more intense symptoms, especially if they don’t get a full diagnosis of both issues.
Get to the bottom of painful jaw or sinus symptoms
It’s not always easy to pinpoint whether your sinuses or your jaw — or both — are causing your symptoms. The only way to know for sure is to see a medical professional. But, you need to consult the appropriate medical team based on the issues you’re having. Symptoms that are specifically jaw related and that occur after eating, for instance, are best treated by a dentist who treats TMJ disorders. If you’re only having nasal pain and congestion with no other problems, a doctor who treats sinus problems is likely a good place to start.
On the other hand, if you’ve seen a doctor for sinus or ear problems but the pain won’t go away, see a dentist who can diagnose, treat, and manage TMD.
At MedCenter TMJ, our treatment plans are designed around the whole person. We examine possible causes of TMD, triggers, and ways to manage the symptoms. Our goal is to help you get back to living the healthiest life possible. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.