Bloomington / Normal, IL

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Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom


Submitted by Todd Gray, DDS, D.ASBA, Koala Center for Sleep & TMJ Disorders

There is nothing more frustrating than having a set of symptoms without knowing the cause. When a medical problem is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, people often end up being treated for the wrong condition, which doesn’t give them relief. Then they may be referred to a specialist, who has a different diagnosis, which results in another ineffective treatment. They may see yet another specialist and so it continues until they either give up, or eventually find their way to the medical professional that is finally able to properly diagnose their condition and provide the correct treatment.

Temporomandibular Joint disorders (TMJ), are a good example of a condition that is often misdiagnosed. TMJ disorders affect the joints that connect your lower jaw to your skull. When these joints are not functioning properly, they can cause a slew of seemingly unrelated symptoms. Jaw pain or difficulty opening the mouth are symptoms that are more readily associated with TMJ. But ear pain, tinnitus (ringing in the ear), dizziness, neck pain, and headaches are also common TMJ symptoms that people would never think are caused by their jaw.

Consider what often happens. A person has ear pain, it is diagnosed as an infection and antibiotics are prescribed. When the pain persists, the person may be referred to an ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat Specialist) who may do some tests, perhaps diagnose a sinus infection or fluid in the ears. If a person has tinnitus or dizziness, this may be attributed to an inner ear problem. Many factors can cause tinnitus which is why most patients don’t receive a TMJ diagnosis. A chiropractor might diagnose neck pain as a disc herniation or problem with the vertebrae. If a person has headaches, it makes sense to find relief with OTC pain medication. When that doesn’t work, a referral to a neurologist will likely result in a medication prescription. There may even be tests taken to rule out serious conditions like a brain tumor. But the fact that the headaches  or neck pain are caused by the muscle strain due to TMJ isn’t recognized.

When other conditions have been ruled out, and you are beginning to think you are nuts, you finally see a dentist—yes a dentist—who specializes in TMJ disorders. A TMJ dentist recognizes your symptoms, can look in your mouth, and most of the time, pinpoint the cause of your pain as a TMJ disorder. The sad thing about this situation is that by the time people are properly diagnosed with a TMJ disorder, they have suffered for a much longer time than they should. And like most medical conditions, a problem is easier to treat in the early stages. When it’s been going on for a while, treatment is more difficult and may take longer.

There are several reasons why TMJ symptoms are often diagnosed as something else. First is that many of the symptoms don’t seem to have anything to do with a person’s jaw. For example, headaches are a common symptom of TMJ. But if you google “causes of headaches”, you’ll see a laundry list of possibilities ranging from a brain tumor, to stress, to hormonal changes, to certain foods. TMJ isn’t even on the list of possibilities.

Second is that TMJ is both a dental and a medical problem. Temporomandibular Disorders (TMDs) are a group of more than 30 conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and muscles that control jaw movement. “TMDs” refers to the disorders, and “TMJ” refers only to the temporomandibular joint itself. Another factor is that the person having symptoms may have more than one medical problem, or may have just vague symptoms, or may not be accurately describing their symptoms, which makes the diagnosis process difficult. Furthermore, there isn’t a simple, standard test available to easily diagnose TMJ disorders.

Until a patient receives an accurate diagnosis, their treatments won’t provide the necessary relief. A TMJ dental specialist will take a holistic approach, which makes sense given that the TMJ dysfunction causes symptoms in many parts of the body. A TMJ dentist can correctly pinpoint the exact cause of your TMJ pain, offer multiple treatment methods, alleviate your pain, and resolve the underlying cause of your TMJ disorder.

If you missed last month’s article on TMJ disorders, you may read it online at Next month’s article will discuss the treatment options for TMJ.

For more information, contact the Koala Center for Sleep & TMJ Disorders at 309-319-6568 or visit their website at Dr. Gray has dedicated his practice to the treatment of snoring, sleep apnea, and TMJ disorders with oral appliance therapy. The custom-made appliances are covered by most major medical plans and Medicare. The Koala Center for Sleep Disorder accepts appointments without referrals but will work with your physician throughout treatment.