I’d venture to say nobody reading this has done what we were designed and intended to do today. Unless you were prancing about an open, grassy field, sniffing flowers, sipping water from a stream and plucking fruits, berries and nuts from vegetation inbetween your numerous naps, anyhow. And do you remember that legendary amount of ground you covered while sprinting with your spear to take down that antelope you feasted on for the rest of the day? Nope, because you were working. In your cubicle. Trying to avoid your boss who you just know was going to ask you to put in overtime on Saturday. You were trying to pay those insane bills. Paying taxes (LOTS in NY). You had to tell your spouse you hate when they leave that peanut butter-encrusted spoon in the sink without at least running water on it. And that drove your OCD wild. Your 4 year old shouted at you for not restarting his favorite Daniel Tiger episode on the DVR quickly enough after his 17th viewing of the day. And on it went.
And all that probably caused you to clench or grind your teeth, a habit the majority of Americans are engaged in at some point (or longer) in their lives. Your TMJ, or temporomandibular joint, is the bilateral joint that holds your lower jaw onto the skull. It is attached to your skull with a variety of muscles, tendons and ligaments. If you add up the amount of time that your upper and lower teeth are supposed to touch throughout the day, it adds up to about 6 minutes, each chew being a fraction of a second. But in people who clench or grind, their teeth are touching for many times more than 6 total minutes per day, maybe hours! And that loads the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the jaw with much more force than they were intended to absorb.
So what happens when you overload the teeth, muscles and jaw with too much force? Headache seems to be the number one complaint. Sometimes migraine headaches that can even lead to sensitivity to light, sounds, or vomiting. I’ve had patients go from doctor to doctor without answers, brain scans and all sorts of neurological tests, only to finally find out during a dental checkup they have TMJ. Dizziness, nausea and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) are possible as well. The nerve supply from the TMJ has connections with the parts of the brain that are involved with both hearing and the interpretation of sound. There can be a direct connection between the ligaments that attach to the jaw and one of the hearing bones in the middle ear. And that can throw off your balance enough to be dizzy or nauseous, and possibly trigger ringing. You can also have visual disturbances. Do you ever feel like your vision is thrown just a little bit off on occasion? Your eyeballs are mounted partially in the sphenoid bone, a butterfly shaped bone in the middle of your skull that some of the chewing muscles also attach to. So if your chewing muscles are tense or inflamed, it could torque the sphenoid bone and throw your vision off a bit.
So what to do? Primarily, relax. Both yourself and your jaws. In acute flare ups, use a heating pad on your jaw muscles and take a coupla Advil. I do not like drugs. But if you’re in so much pain that you’re about to throw up, guess you gotta bite the bullet and take the chemical. I know from personal experience that 2 Advil and a cup of coffee is wonderful for a TMJ migraine. An hour later you’re borderline euphoric. If the flare ups become numerous, you may want to visit a TMJ specialist. In most cases they can fabricate a guard to wear that will deactivate your chewing muscles and get you to chill out.
So if you’ve got a lingering headache that you never got an answer to, ask your dentist to evaluate you for signs of TMJ. And consider that elusive, picturesque frolick through nature with the fruit and berries instead of those extra hours at the job. Spear optional.