Breathing, speaking, chewing and swallowing are all accomplished by muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments and teeth in the head and neck acting in total harmony. These actions are miraculous feats we all take for granted.

If they are not in harmony, these muscles become stressed, which can create tension headaches, ear pain, joint pain, along with neck pain, sleep apnea and a plethora of other symptoms.

These horrible, life-robbing pains mimic both migraines and earaches. The official name is TMD, which stands for temporomandibular disorder.

Tension Headaches

As I mentioned in last month’s article, the head is not just bone. It is the home of huge, powerful muscles for chewing, along with the previously mentioned actions. When the jaw closes, it closes until it hits teeth and it cannot close anymore. If the bite is not even, there is disharmony. Subconsciously, an uneven bite will seek balance and harmony. These muscles continue to move the jaw, in every direction, seeking balance. This constant movement overworks the muscles causing spasm and pain. The pain can come and go, be constant, be just on one side or can be on both sides.

Joint pain, popping

If a person’s upper jaw did not develop correctly as a child, it can create pain and noise in the joint area which is near the ear canal. These people have usually figured out that they like for the jaw to hang forward, so much so they have wear patterns on their front teeth. To chew, they pull their jaw back. This pushes the joint into the ear area creating pain and sometimes noise.

Having the joint too far back can put pressure on a collection of nerves and blood vessels called neurovascular bundles. Because this bundle is right next to the ear canal, people think they have something wrong with their ear(s). They seek medical attention only to find out the ears are not infected or clogged up. If you, the reader, have ear or joint pain, place the pad of the little finger toward the jaw joint and place it as far in the ear canal as it can go. Bite down on your back teeth. If you feel movement or pain, you probably have a discrepancy in the upper and lower jaw and your jaw is being pushed back too far during closing. What you are feeling is a joint complex in the wrong position.

Torqued lower jaw

Here is another self-test. From an open position, lightly bite down until one tooth touches. If one side is hitting before the other, front before back and vice versa it is like one foot being shorter than the other. You can only imagine how this would affect muscles. Over time, the body is going to respond negatively. This can lead to pain, pressure and inflammation.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Apnea means one is not getting enough oxygen. Obstructive means just that, obstruction of the throat, which is caused by muscles not doing their job of keeping the airway open. It is called sleep apnea because this obstruction does not usually occur during the awakened state.

Sleep apnea is a very dangerous condition that slowly kills due to long term oxygen starvation of all organs and blood vessels. There are two common treatments for sleep apnea, the CPAP and the special oral appliances. A CPAP forces air/oxygen down into the lungs while the appliances put the lower jaw in such a position the breathing muscle starts to behave and open the airway. Both have great track records of getting air to the lungs and create normal breathing at night.

Treatment for TMD pain

The pain, noise and discomfort described above is easily mistaken as a medical problem, so people naturally seek out help from the medical community. Unfortunately, medical training does not include anything dental. Yes, they deal with pain every day but don’t connect the dots when it comes to head pain simply because of lack of training. The most conservative and least expensive way to stop the described symptoms above is a TMD orthotic appliance, made by dentists who are specially trained in this area. TMD is its own specialty and is not taught in dental school either.

A TMD orthotic is made differently than a regular nightguard or splint. Nightguards and splints are made to protect the teeth on patients who grind during the night. TMD orthotics mimic a good bite and fake the brain into thinking the bite is balanced same as a shoe orthotic does.

With 48 years as a dentist, I find treating TMD pain patients and getting rid of most, if not all, of their pain is the most rewarding service I can do. I have more information on TMD on my website, especially in my blogs.

Dr. Mac Lee practices in Edna. He is an international speaker and trainer to dentists. He is dedicated to educate the public about dental disease. To learn more about dentistry, visit or call 361-782-7191.

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