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TMJ dysfunction: Can the problem originate in the neck?

By Staff | Oct 25, 2018

The TMJ – the temporomandibular joint – is located where the jaw connects to the skull on each side. Similar to a hinge which opens and shuts, this joint must function properly for chewing, talking, smiling, and yawning. Problems with TMJ function can lead to jaw pain, clicking and popping in the jaw, lockjaw, headaches, neck pain and ear pain.

While many patients with TMJ dysfunction seek help from dentists in the form of jaw surgery, mouth guards, braces and other dental treatment, not all cases of TMJ respond to such intervention. Additionally, these treatments can be quite costly and time-consuming. In contrast, for many patients, the simple correction of cervical (neck) alignment can have profound results for TMJ dysfunction.

How does cervical alignment affect jaw function? It’s simple. The skull sits upon the very first vertebrae at the top of the neck, known as the atlas. The atlas provides great mobility for the head, allowing it to move in many directions; however, the atlas can twist out of place through trauma, accidents, falls or poor posture.

If the atlas twists out of position, an individual’s head may sit “crooked” on top of the neck, leading to an imbalance in the muscular function and articulation of the jaw joints. The atlas also protects delicate brainstem nerves which are responsible for giving the head and face their feeling and function, so the atlas displacement may “pinch” these nerves. At first, a patient may notice that their teeth do not mesh well together. Over time, as the injury persists, TMJ dysfunction may worsen and become chronic.

In order to determine whether an atlas injury is contributing to a patient’s TMJ dysfunction, the individual can undergo an evaluation with a chiropractor specializing in the upper cervical spine. This rare specialty, known as upper cervical care, utilizes two diagnostic tools – thermal imaging and digital X-rays – to accurately assess the alignment of the head, upper neck, and jaw. Each patient’s misaligned atlas is corrected by administering a precise adjustment by hand on a specially-designed knee chest table. Many patients notice improvement in TMJ symptoms in just a few treatments.

With over 20 years of experience as a specialist in the upper cervical spine, Upper Cervical Chiropractor Dr. Erin Elster, D.C., has maintained a practice on Maui for the past five years. For more information about TMJ dysfunction or to schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Elster in Kahului at (808) 866-6551 or www.erinelster.com.