We medical providers who see patients with neck pain and jaw problems have known for years that the two are linked. However, it’s always great to see studies that begin to prove what you think you know. A new study now ties neck pain and TMJ together by looking at how the contractions of the muscles that move the jaw are altered in patients with neck pain.
Neck Pain and TMJ
The TMJ is the jaw joint. The joints and surrounding tissues can become sore and painful and can even prevent patients from being able to chew. We commonly see patients with neck pain develop TMJ pain. How does this work?
One theory has been that the muscles of chewing begin to be used as secondary stabilizers of the neck. This means that as the neck stability muscles go off-line, the jaw muscles jump in to help hold the head up. Since they’re not designed to do this, they and the TMJ joint get quickly damaged from excessive wear and tear. If this were really true, we’d expect patients with neck pain to have differences in how their jaw muscles work compared to people without neck problems.
The New Study
As I’ve often said, we’re moving into a new world in medicine. The availability of cheap sensors, massive brain-like computing power, and other technologies will be rewriting how we diagnose and treat disease. One of those big changes will also be in research, as our tools to understand the body get better and better. You can see this in the brain MRI images I showed awhile back that can now track the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, to the artificial intelligence now being used to help diagnose and treat cancer.
This new study is also a good example. Here the researchers used a new technology to map how the muscle is contracting. Prior to this tech, all we could say was how much the muscle contracted, not whether parts of it weren’t contracting normally.
The new research used 12 patients with neck pain and 12 matched controls without neck issues. High-density surface EMG was used to map the contractions in the jaw muscles as the subjects clenched their teeth and relaxed. One of the muscles the researchers concentrated on was the masseter.
The neck pain patient group showed a different distribution of masseter-muscle activity compared with the patients without neck pain. The position of the center of activity was up and to the front compared to the healthy subjects. In addition, the patients with neck pain had higher levels of masseter-muscle activation regardless of which tasks they were asked to perform.We’ve always looked at the neck and TMJ as one unit. A good example is Valerie’s story. She had TMJ pain, and we treated it with stem cells, but we also needed to treat her neck to make those results stick. Check out the video for more about her journey.
The upshot? This study supported the concept that the TMJ muscles of patients with chronic neck pain were being used differently from those patients without. This fits with the hypothesis that these patients are using their jaw muscles to support the head, which leads to tendon problems and TMJ degeneration over time. So if you have neck pain and TMJ, the two may be very interrelated. That means that the road to getting your TMJ fixed may be through your neck!