Stem Cells Help Patient with Severe TMJ Issues Chew Again

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Valerie had suffered from temporomandibular joint (TMJ) issues since the age of 16. In 2014, at the age of 60, she fell and crushed the upper and lower part of the vertebrae at her second lumbar disc. Ten days later, she yawned and completely dislocated her jaw. For 18 months, she was unable to chew solid or soft food and had to blend everything she ate. The doctors where she lived told her she’d need a total jaw replacement, so Valerie went to Boston seeking other options, but the experts there also recommended jaw replacement.

The Four Components of the TMJ

When you eat food, the TMJ is the joint in your jaw that allows you to chew. It is a hinge joint, and one sits in front of each ear. If you suffer from intermittent pain in this area when you chew food, or even when you speak, you may have a TMJ issue. There are four key components of the TMJ. Let’s explore these in more detail.

1. Cartilage

Cartilage in any joint provides a cushion of protection between the bones, and the TMJ also benefits from the protection of cartilage. The TMJ has an articular disc (similar to the meniscus in the knee) as well, providing a natural spacer and additional protection for the joint. Whether we are speaking or chewing, our TMJ moves a lot, and this puts a great deal of pressure on the joint and the surrounding structures. As with any other joint, arthritis can also set in and can be quite painful in the TMJ. Arthritis occurs when the cartilage becomes injured or damaged due to wear and tear.

2. Muscles

There are many different muscles involved in the functioning of the TMJ: the masseter, the large temporalis, the pterygoids, strap muscles, and so on. The precise collaboration of these powerful muscles provide the distinct movements required to open and close the jaw. These muscles can develop aches and pains just like any other muscle in the body, and in more severe cases can completely shut down. The tendons that connect these muscles to the bone can also develop painful issues, such as tears or degeneration.

3. Ligaments

Ligaments are often overlooked by TMJ experts, and they were the key to Valerie’s stem cell therapy. The sphenomandibular, stylomandibular, and capsular ligaments are the main ligaments in the TMJ. The capsule, which forms a covering over the TMJ is divided, as well, into collateral (lateral) ligaments. Ligaments keep the jaw steady, stable, and lined up straight. If they become loose or weak, the jaw can move out of line, a motion it is not naturally designed to do. In the video, you will hear Valerie talk about her jaw literally moving to the side of her face.

4. The TMJ Ecosystem

The TMJ ecosystem is another area often overlooked by TMJ experts. The TMJ regional ecosystem consists of the head and neck. The TMJ can’t properly function if its ecosystem isn’t likewise working appropriately and efficiently. It’s the old “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link” analogy. If the ligaments in the neck have been injured or the muscles have shut down, then the body attempts to use the TMJ muscles to compensate, acting as substitutes in stabilizing the neck. The TMJ already has enough work to do without taking on a task it wasn’t designed to do, and these extra loads on the joint will eventually cause damage and break-down in the TMJ.

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Desperately Seeking Jaw-Replacement Options

Valerie is a nurse practitioner, so she spent a lot of time researching her options for her severe TMJ issues. Neither Valerie nor the surgeons were excited about the idea of replacing Valerie’s jaw with an artificial one. She searched the Internet for regenerative medicine options, like PRP and stem cell injections, but wasn’t having any luck finding anything regarding TMJ treatments. She also had problems in her neck and back, so even if she saw a dentist who could do some of those injections for her TMJ, they couldn’t really deal with her neck and her back, and without treating her full ecosystem (see “The TMJ Ecosystem” above) affecting her TMJ, the treatments wouldn’t do much good.

When Valerie found us at Regenexx, the kind of stem cell work that she needed for her TMJ had only been done three or four other times in history, and we had done all of these. However, when I first met Valerie and looked at everything from her low back to her neck to her jaw, I was overwhelmed. Her condition was indeed extreme, and I was honest with her, telling her that I could provide treatment, but since she couldn’t even chew soft foods, I didn’t know how much relief she would get.

Desperate to avoid jaw replacement, Valerie chose stem cell and PRP treatments for her TMJ, neck, and back issues.

Valerie’s Stem Cell Treatments Take Her from “Crooked” to “Straight”

For over a year and a half, which included five separate visits, Valerie traveled to our Colorado clinic for treatments. She had always felt “crooked,” and her treatments stretched from her coccyx (“tailbone”) all the way up to her TMJ, first starting with PRP injections and eventually stem cell injections. Structures I treated in Valerie included the following:

  • TMJ ligaments, including some on the inside of the joint
  • Damaged facet joints in the neck
  • Neck ligaments
  • The SI joint
  • Bulging and painful spinal discs
  • Alar/transverse ligaments that hold her neck on

In order to do this final procedure—the alar/transverse ligament injection—the one I really felt drove Valerie’s recovery, a very precise injection is passed through the back of the throat into the ligaments in the upper neck. This was a brand-new procedure that we invented to be able to help these specific ligaments. Click here if you want to dig deeper into the technical details of Valerie’s TMJ stem cell treatments. The result of these treatments is best stated in Valerie’s own words:

All of that [the PRP and stem cell treatments] tightened me up and lined me up, and I’m straight now. I’m straight! It’s great. And when you’re straight, you’re stronger. And I can walk now with so much more energy. He [Dr. Centeno] went in to each individual ligament—I had about 40 injections all the way up and down—and they got stronger. One thing that really sets Regenexx apart is that they use both ultrasound and fluoroscopy, which is that real-time X-ray, to image exactly where they’re going…

My back pain is completely gone. It was gone after the stem cells were delivered. After that procedure, within a month, I was able to chew again.

The upshot? So many of us take for granted the ability to chew solid foods and walk unassisted, without a brace or walker; however, when the unexpected happens—in Valerie’s case a terrible fall that broke her back and dislocated her jaw, intensifying her life-long TMJ issues—it’s good to know surgery may not be the only option. With stem cell and PRP treatments, Valerie can chew soft and solid food again, she can walk unassisted and with energy again, and she is no longer “crooked.” Just look at her beautiful, bright smile in the video above when she says, “I’m straight now. I’m straight!”

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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NOTE: This blog post provides general information to help the reader better understand regenerative medicine, musculoskeletal health, and related subjects. All content provided in this blog, website, or any linked materials, including text, graphics, images, patient profiles, outcomes, and information, are not intended and should not be considered or used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always consult with a professional and certified healthcare provider to discuss if a treatment is right for you.

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