If you’re suffering from TMJ pain and searching for TMJ treatment, you know the feeling. It’s confusing right? Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMD) are complex because they impact many areas of the head and neck.
How do you know which doctor to see if you’re having pain in your jaw, teeth, face muscles, neck, ears, headache, tinnitus, and sometimes even more? It’s a common sentiment– many patients are bewildered and wondering the same thing, “what kind of doctor do I see for TMJ pain.”
Let’s demystify TMJ treatment and help you take that first step to select the right doctor to see for TMJ problems.
Why it’s Difficult to Know What Kind of Doctor to See for TMJ Pain
Most people are unsure where to turn as the first step for TMJ treatment because the symptoms affect several body parts. The most common symptoms of TMJ pain that patients complain of include:
- Muscle fatigue when eating
- Lock Jaw and Jaw locking
- Chronic headaches or migraines
- Jaw popping or clicking
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Diffuse pain along the sides of the face
- Tinnitus or Ringing in the ears
- Teeth clenching or grinding
- Pain when biting directly on back molars
- Eye pressure
That’s quite a variety of symptoms that affect the entire head and neck. People start wondering is TMJ treatment a dental issue or a medical issue?
What makes it worse is that there is a lot of conflicting TMJ recommendations and advice.
Patients do not know whether to see a physician, dentist, physical therapist, psychologist, surgeon, or chiropractor. So you know what happens? Patients often live with TMJ pain much longer than they need to. TMJ patients often first try self-treating with painkillers, and google jaw stretches to try to relieve the pain. While these treatments may work temporarily to relieve TMJ and TMD pain, they are not consistent because they do not correct the primary source of TMJ pain.
Are There Doctors Who Specialize in TMJ Disorder?
There is no specific medical or dental specialty for temporomandibular joint disorder. So you’re probably wondering, do you see a physician or a dentist? The National Institute of Health recommends patients to look for a health care provider who understands musculoskeletal disorders (affecting muscle, bone and joints) and who is trained in treating pain conditions. This may be a physician or a dentist.
Where to Begin with TMJ Treatment
The best place to begin if you have concerns about possibly having TMJ disorder is your general dentist. Your general dentist will help to provide some feedback on your concerns. Now it is essential to understand that most general dentists understand the basics of TMJ dysfunction, but few general dentists are experienced to treat complex TMJ problems. A general dentist may refer you to a TMJ specialist in your area or recommend you find one on your own.
So how do I recommend going about finding a TMJ specialist? For most patients with TMJ disorder concerns, I suggest first finding a TMJ dentist in your area. The key here is that I said TMJ dentist and not TMJ physician. It’s not that physicians won’t be involved, more on that later, it’s that they aren’t the primary healthcare provider for TMJ treatment. A TMJ dentist will be the quarterback for your treatment.
So How do you choose a TMJ dentist?
When choosing a TMJ practice, TMJ treatment should be a large focus of their practice and the dentist’s biography should note significant training in TMJ. Some TMJ training to look for are a TMJ residency at a University or training at a well-known institute like the Pankey Institute, the Dawson Academy, or the Las Vegas Institute. Many dental practices will advertise that they see TMJ patients as one of many general things, but you want to look for a practice that is positioned as a TMJ expert in your area.
There is one exception to my recommendation to see a TMJ dentist first. The exception is if your primary source of TMJ symptoms are either ear pain or tinnitus. If that’s the case, I usually recommend for the patient to see an ENT physician first to confirm that there isn’t a true ear condition. If the ENT confirms the ears are okay, then you should then schedule a consult with a TMJ dentist and report what your ENT found to them.
TMJ Treatment if Often a Team Effort
TMJ treatment is often multifactorial. I want you to consider the TMJ dentist as the quarterback for treating TMJ disorder. At a TMJ dental practice is treatment begins, but the TMJ dentist may need to refer you to other providers throughout your course of treatment with them. Depending on the cause and complexity of your symptoms, other healthcare professionals adjunctively come into play to work as a team.
Other healthcare providers who adjunctively help the TMJ dentist treat TMJ dysfunction are:
Physical Therapists: Muscular issues cause a large percentage of TMJ pain. Physical therapists adjunctively help reduce TMJ problems by increasing range of motion and reducing muscle pain.
Rheumatologists: TMJ disorder can have an autoimmune component if there is arthritis of the TMJ. Rheumatologists are physicians with specialized knowledge in joints, muscles, and ligaments.
Pain management specialists: Focus on managing pain, including joint pain.
ENTs: A common symptom of patients with TMJ dysfunction is ear pain and tinnitus. ENTs are specialized physicians who work with the TMJ dentist to reduce any symptoms specific to the ears.
Orthodontists: When the teeth of the top and bottom jaw do not fit together in harmony with the TMJ, it can create TMJ dysfunction. An orthodontist can help align the teeth so that the temporomandibular joint is in better harmony with the teeth. It is interesting to note that if orthodontics are done incorrectly, it can lead to TMJ disorder. Sometimes orthodontics need to be redone to correct prior orthodontics.
Neurologists: Nerve pain can be a component of TMJ disorder. In some individuals, the nerves of the head and neck sense pain when there is no painful stimulus. When TMJ pain is of neurologic origin, your TMJ dentist may refer you to consult with a neurologist.
Psychologists: TMJ symptoms are linked to stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If a psychological disorder complicates TMJ pain, a psychologist may be involved to help reduce psychological triggers.
Oral Surgeons: Sometimes, wisdom teeth can be a cause of TMJ disorder, and your TMJ dentist may refer you to an oral surgeon. In addition, although its not common, for about 5% of patients the jaws are so far out of alignment that surgery may be recommended to reposition them into harmony.
Chiropractors: The spine contains nerves that run to the head and neck. If there is shoulder pressure or spinal pressure, it can refer pain to the jaw. A chiropractor can help evaluate the spine and shoulders for imbalances that contribute to TMJ dysfunction.
When to See a TMJ Specialist
While sometimes flareups from TMJ pain may be temporary, do not allow your symptoms to linger longer than a month. If your symptoms have persisted for over a month and are worsening, it is highly unlikely that your issues will dissipate without effective intervention.
While your symptoms may come and go, they are indicative that there is an underlying disharmony in your TMJ complex. The TMJ complex involves the muscles, teeth, and temporomandibular joints. Each of these components must work in harmony with each other. When they do not, that’s when a patient displays symptoms of TMJ dysfunction.
As we discussed, speak with your general dentist first. They may know a well known TMJ dentist in your area that they can recommend. If they do not refer you, and your symptoms persist, you need to visit with an experienced doctor who can help you address the underlying cause of your symptoms.
What Happens when you see a TMJ Dentist
At your first visit, a TMJ dentist will gather information about your symptoms, your background, your lifestyle, and anything you have noticed regarding your condition. The TMJ dentist will conduct a physical examination focusing on the muscles of the head and neck. He or she will test the muscles of your jaw for soreness, will observe your jaw’s range of motion, and feel how your jaw opens and closes. Often Digital imaging such a panoramic radiograph is taken at the first visit. If future imaging is required, the TMJ dentist may request an MRI to visualize how the joint of your jaw is functioning.
After your examination, the TMJ dentist will have recommendations for you and will develop a treatment plan. You should understand that TMJ disorder is treatable but its not usually quick fix. TMJ treatment often requires followup over a period of several months, or even sometimes years, to achieve a final result.
A TMJ dentist may recommend a combination of treatments. Some examples of common treatment is a bite splint, orthodontics, restorative dentistry, or bite equilibration.
If TMJ pain is left untreated, it can lead to chronic issues. That bad because its often increasingly more difficult to treat later in life. I know it can be scary to take an initial step to seeing a new healthcare provider like a TMJ dentist. However, you should know that you are making a good step forward to prevent future problems.
If you have read this far you have already learned what kind of doctor to see for TMJ pain. Trust me, understanding that is half the battle. By finding an experienced TMJ doctor, you will invest in your future to enjoy the benefits of healthier jaw alignment and proper movement when speaking and eating.