TMJ and the Trigeminal Nerve

Is it TMD or Trigeminal Neuralgia?

Headaches, facial pain and jaw pain are often telltale signs of a problem with your jaw joint, or temporomandibular joint (TMJ). A disorder of the TMJ characterized by swelling and inflammation is commonly called a temporomandibular disorder, or TMD.

TMD isn’t the only condition that can cause ongoing jaw or facial pain, however. Another equally painful condition with a very different cause can also be to blame. Trigeminal neuralgia can be mistaken for TMD. Trigeminal neuralgia is pain and/or inflammation that affects the trigeminal nerve, an important nerve in the head.

The confusion between these conditions can cause a number of problems. First, each of these conditions requires different treatments and may cause debilitating pain that interferes with daily life. Many people live with their painful symptoms for months or even years, thinking that over-the-counter pain relievers or a bite splint will help. In reality, both TMD and trigeminal neuralgia need the care of a medical professional who specializes in orofacial pain.

Don’t ignore facial pain, jaw pain, headaches, or other ongoing pain. Your body is trying to tell you something! Let’s delve into the details of TMD and trigeminal neuralgia to clear up the confusion about these two conditions.

TMD and TMJ: What Does it Mean?

Your TMJ, commonly called the jaw joint, connects the temporal bones on the side of your skull to your mandible, or lower jawbone. It is the “hinge” that allows the jaw to move. When it is working correctly, it slides smoothly and comfortably, allowing you to move your mouth and use the jaw for chewing, talking, and yawning.

But, like any joint, it can become fatigued, overstressed, and injured. This may happen from an accident, arthritis, misalignment, or overuse. As a result, the TMJ becomes irritated and inflamed, leading to TMD.

One of the major obstacles of TMD treatment is the fact that it often “masquerades” as other problems. TMD may feel like an ear ache, migraine headache, or a neck/back problem. Its symptoms can be mysterious, seeming to come and go with changes like stress, temperature, and often without an obvious cause.

Despite its mysterious nature, TMD can be identified by a medical professional who has knowledge and experience in treating TMD. In many cases, a proper TMD diagnosis and treatment plan will include advanced technology that gives an accurate picture of your jaw’s health, as well as state-of-the-art tools to help you get relief.

The most common symptoms of TMD include:

  • Headache

  • TMJ pain (jaw pain)

  • Stiffness or pain in the neck, shoulders, and/or back

  • Difficulty opening the jaw

  • Pain after chewing or talking

  • Popping, grinding, or clicking sounds coming from the jaw

  • Earaches

  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)

  • Dizziness (a spinning sensation known as vertigo)

TMD can often be treated with non-invasive options. At MedCenter TMJ, we take a whole-body approach to helping the muscles in the jaw restore normal function. This may include wearing a specialized appliance, exercises, massages, stretches, and diet changes. We also incorporate stress reduction and other lifestyle changes, if needed, to help our patients feel theirvery best while helping the jaw heal properly.

Trigeminal Neuralgia: What It Feels Like

The trigeminal nerves are important nerves in the head that are related to the TMJs. These large cranial nerves sense temperature and pain in various parts of the face, and control the muscles that allow for the movement and usage of the jaw. Because they are nerves, they have a direct connection to the brain. The trigeminal nerves have three branches in them, including:

  • The ophthalmic nerve, which provides sensation in the eyes, nose, eyebrows, and forehead

  • The maxillary nerve, which is connected to the nasal cavity, sinuses, palate, and upper jaw

  • The mandibular nerve, which controls sensation and motion for your mandible, or lower jaw

The trigeminal nerves are located on either side of the face and are crucial for proper jaw movement and function. When something goes wrong with the nerve, however, trigeminal neuralgia can develop, causing a number of uncomfortable or downright excruciating symptoms.

Trigeminal neuralgia often occurs when a blood vessel or vein comes into contact with the trigeminal nerve. This puts pressure on the nerve, causing it to become irritated or inflamed. Trigeminal neuralgia may result from:

  • Normal aging

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Any disorder that damages the myelin sheath, or protective covering, of the nerve

  • A tumor in the face

Some people may experience trigeminal neuralgia because of a brain lesion or other abnormalities. In other cases, surgical injuries, a stroke or facial trauma may be responsible for trigeminal neuralgia.

Trigeminal nerve pain usually comes and goes in spurts or “attacks,” which may last several seconds or minutes. A person with trigeminal neuralgia may experience no symptoms for an extended amount of time, but then the symptoms return. The symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia may include:

  • Jaw pain on only one side

  • A sharp, stabbing, or burning pain in the cheeks

  • Pain that feels like an electric shock in the cheek and jaw area

  • Intense flashes of pain triggered by touching the face

Trigeminal neuralgia may be treated with muscle relaxants, Botox, special nerve procedures, or certain seizure medications. Surgery may be an option, but treatment plans vary with each individual patient.

As you can see, the symptoms of TMD and trigeminal neuralgia have some similarities, but there are several key differences. The treatment of these conditions differ greatly, as well.

Jaw or Facial Pain Needs Treatment

Whether it’s TMD, trigeminal neuralgia, or another issue, it’s important to seek care from a medical professional for facial pain, headaches, or other symptoms. Getting the diagnosis and treatment you need is essential for managing these painful conditions and helping you get your life back.

Make an appointment with MedCenter TMJ to learn how our experts in orofacial pain can have you feeling like yourself again.

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