What is TMJ?

TMJ is short for "temporomandibular joints." These joints are responsible for connecting your jawbone to your skull. They are positioned at the sides of your head near each ear and play a critical role in giving you the ability to eat, speak, and make facial expressions. The temporomandibular joint is one of the most frequently used and complex joints in your body.

How Does Whiplash Cause TMJ Injuries?

Our clients almost always sustain whiplash as the result of a car accident, often a rear-end collision. When a car is struck from behind the person's head is "whipped" backward, and depending on the force of the collision it's possible for the muscles in their lower jaw to experience a large amount of pressure. When this happens the jaw is pulled open and places additional pressure on the sides of the skull where their jaw is attached to the upper head area. Essentially the head and jaw are experiencing opposite forces and TMJ injury can then be the result of the severe whipping motion.

(While whiplash is a common cause of TMJ injury in car accidents, it's also possible to suffer the injury as a result of your head or chin strikes the steering wheel or other fixed object in the vehicle.)

TMJ Injuries Typically Tall into 3 Categories:

  • Myofascial Pain: This refers to the discomfort or pain in the muscles that control jaw function, and can also involve the muscles in the neck and shoulders. Many of our car accident clients suffer from various types of myofascial pain, often resulting in TMJ disorder.
  • Internal Derangement of the Joint: This refers to the displacement of the disc that acts as a cushion between the skull and lower jaw. Again, this is another common injury type seen in severe auto accidents.
  • Inflammatory joint disease: This often leads to either arthritis or synovitis.

Arthritis This is an inflammatory condition that affects a joint. Various forms of Arthritis can affect the TMJ such as Degenerative (Osteoarthritis), Rheumatoid, Traumatic, Infectious, Psoriatic, and Gouty Arthritis.

Synovitis This is an inflammatory condition of the synovial membrane. The synovial membrane lines the joint and produces a fluid that lubricates the joint.

Besides Whiplash, What Else Causes TMJ Injuries?

Trauma: Acute trauma to the jaw and/or muscles of the jaw is a leading cause of TMJ injury and can often be attributed to car accidents, falls, punches, etc.

In regard to auto accidents, a collision at a speed as low as 9 mph can cause whiplash, which can then cause a dislocation of the jaw joint. If you have dislocated your jaw joint, you may notice immediate pain associated with a TMJ injury. It's also possible that it will take years for your symptoms to arise.

Previous fractures: A fracture to the jaw that has never properly healed can be the source of a TMJ injury, as the misaligned bone can place constant stress on the temporomandibular joint and surrounding muscles.

Teeth grinding and teeth clenching: Also known as bruxism, this is the conscious or unconscious moving of your teeth back and forth over each other (teeth grinding), placing stress on facial muscles, tissues and the jaw. This not only wears down the teeth possibly cause misalignment, but it also causes wear on the cartilage lining of the temporomandibular joint.

Dental problems or teeth misalignment: If your teeth do not fit together properly, your jaw muscles must compensate for the misalignment. The added muscle tension caused by a misalignment can cause pain and reveal signs of a possible TMJ disorder.

Emotion: Stress is a common reaction to a traumatic accident and can possibly cause TMJ. Stress will often cause you to consciously or unconsciously tighten your facial and jaw muscles, as well as grind or clench your teeth, either while awake or asleep.

Common TMJ Symptoms

Only a physician can correctly and accurately diagnose a TMJ injury, but any of the following symptoms could indicate serious injury to your jaw:

  • A clicking sound when opening or closing your mouth, especially when chewing
  • Locking of your jaw
  • Difficulty or discomfort while chewing or biting
  • Tenderness or dull, aching pain in face, especially when awaking
  • Persistent headaches
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Pain in neck, shoulders and back
  • Stuffiness or pain in your sinus area
  • Hearing problems
  • Dizziness
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Depression
  • Light sensitivity

Diagnosing TMJ

It's not uncommon to consult with more than one doctor to receive a proper diagnosis for your TMJ injury. Depending on the symptoms, you may need to see a combination of your primary care physician, your dentist, and an ear, nose, throat (ENT) doctor. Testing may consist of the following:

  • An MRI of the jaw area
  • Physical examination of the joint and muscles to test for tenderness
  • Sliding of your teeth from side to side
  • An examination by your dentist to view your bite alignment
  • Having your doctor Watch, listen, and feel as your jaw opens and closes
  • Undergoing x-rays to reveal any abnormalities in the jaw
  • Pressing on different areas of the head to test for sensitivity or pain

What Are the Treatment Options for TMJ?

There are a number of non-evasive therapies that your doctor may prescribe to help relieve the symptoms your TMJ is causing.

Surgery is usually a last resort for this type of injury and is used less and less in in present day practices. Fortunately, there is a long list of helpful treatments that minimize symptoms long before surgery is even a consideration.

Some of the treatments most often prescribed are:

  • Gentle massaging of the various jaw muscles and surrounding tissue,
  • Heat or ice applications applied to the affected area,
  • Stress management techniques,
  • Mouth guards, also referred to as splints or appliances
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  • Orthodontics

Why Is an Experienced Personal Injury Attorney Critical to My Case?

When it comes to car accidents, or any other type of personal injury claim, TMJ is often ignored by insurance companies, and unless there is direct impact to the jaw resulting in a break, they may try to deny your claim.

Recent studies have led researchers to findings that show accident victims who suffered whiplash in the car accident were 5 times more likely to develop TMJ pain or discomfort than those in the control group who did not suffer whiplash-type injuries. After one year, 34% of those initially suffering whiplash had TMJ symptoms, compared with only 7% among the non-whiplash group.

Call our office today to speak with one of our attorneys about your potential case. There is never a cost or pressure involved with any of our consultations, and the advice you receive may save your claim.

James R. Keller
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Partner at Keller & Keller