Temporomandibular joint disorder, more commonly referred to as TMJ, is much more complicated than many think. Instead of a one-size-fits-all disorder, TMJ is an umbrella term used to describe one or more complications affecting the temporomandibular joint. Functioning like a sliding hinge connecting your jawbone to your skull, the temporomandibular joint is interconnected with a complex network of nerves and structures in the head, which can cause varied symptoms with different levels of severity in each patient.
Tinnitus is a perfect example of this. Constant ringing in the ears that changes in intensity and pitch, is not often thought of as a symptom of TMJ, but is actually experienced by many. Though we’re not entirely certain what connects the two, one clue could be that our ear bones, the smallest bones in our body, were once used as our jaw bones, and their function is still partially intertwined through many of their complex actions.
More On Jaw Muscles
The tensor tympani, tensor veli palatini, and stapedius are three tiny jaw muscles that still play an important role in hearing. Tensor tympani, for example, located in the bony canal above the osseous portion of the auditory tube, is responsible for protecting your eardrum against loud noises by contracting—though it may also help in the transmission of sounds. The tensor tympani and the tensor veli palatini open the Eustanchian tube to allow your ear pressure to equalize. The smallest skeletal muscle is the stapedius, which works to stabilize the stapes, the body’s smallest bone.
Although none of these appear to serve the jaw, they are actually intimately connected. The tensor tympani and tensor veli palatini connect to the trigeminal nerve, involuntarily contracting to support jaw functions such as speaking, chewing, or yawning. This is why you’ll often find people on airplanes intentionally yawning, because the movement can help the tensor veli palatini to stabilize ear pressure. The same goes for chewing gum.
Tinnitus and TMJ
Although the connection hasn’t been verified, the connection between muscle structures in the jaw and the ear seem to explain tinnitus as a common TMJ symptom. It is likely that when structures in the jaw are under duress, it can affect these other structures in surprising ways. For example, when ear pressure isn’t stabilized, it’s common to hear a rumbling or rushing sound similar to being underwater.
If you’ve been experiencing other TMJ symptoms, it may be time to schedule an appointment with a dentist who can help alleviate symptoms with drug-free treatments. TMJ can be a progressive disorder that could cause bite issues in the future. The most common TMJ symptoms are jaw pain, frequent headaches, or pain while chewing. However, like tinnitus, many other less common symptoms exist, including, neck and back pain, and bruxism.
TMJ is often detected during your regularly scheduled dental visits to our office. If you experience any of the symptoms in between visits you should contact our office at (914) 332-4402 to schedule a neuromuscular evaluation with TMJ dentist Dr. Wanda as soon as possible.