Last week during a routine visit, my dentist diagnosed me with Temporomandibular Joint Disorder—more commonly known as TMJ (technically an incorrect acronym), TMJD, or TMD—which is a problem with the hinge that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull (which allows you to do very important things like talk and eat). To put it simply, it's "pain of the jaw joint and surrounding muscles," says celebrity dentist Kevin Sands, DDS. TMJD can happen for a large number of reasons, but grinding your teeth—which I do all day, every day—is one of the biggies. Symptoms tend to present as jaw or tooth pain, difficulty opening your mouth, popping and clicking noises, as well as headaches, pain under your eyes, and discomfort down the neck and shoulders (among other things).
My dentist asked if I was overly stressed (yes) or sleeping enough (no), and confirmed that these were two of the most likely culprits behind the constant jaw aggravation I've been feeling for the last few months. She also noted that she had seen a rapid increase of young people seeking treatment for the disorder—she told me she went from prescribing 5 night guards a year to at least 5 a day—which she chocks up to what I like to call the "stress epidemic."
While there's no currently no research to support this estimation, two other NYC-based dentists confirmed that they were seeing the same trend amongst their patients (interestingly however, Matthew Messina, DDS, who's based in Ohio, says that he hasn't noticed this in his own offices). "We're definitely seeing a lot of younger patients coming in with TMJ issues. I think a lot of it has to do with stress," says celebrity cosmetic dentist Victoria Veytsman, DDS, who practices in New York and Los Angeles. "I think those big cities are just high-stress cities. We're definitely seeing an influx of TMJ complaints and tension. People's teeth are worn, they're grinding, and they're not sleeping well."
Stress may be one of the more common causes of TMJ issues, but it isn't the only cause. "As far as what causes TMJ issues, it's multi-factorial, so it's really hard to pinpoint what it is," says Dr. Veytsman. "There could be a lot of different factors—one is stress, one is genetic, another thing is just a poor bite if your teeth aren't aligned properly." Dr. Messina also notes that a "traumatic event"—like having your jaw knocked—could also lead to TMJD.
If you, like me, are an official member of #ClubTMJD, there are a few different things you can do to treat it. "From the clinical standpoint, we could do a night guard to help prevent teeth grinding," says Dr. Veytsman, who also notes the importance of making sure that TMJ discomfort isn't being caused by a bigger problem, like sleep apnea. From a more holistic standpoint, though, she suggests generally working on stress management as a way to give your teeth and jaw a break. In fact, my dentist actually prescribed me "deep breathing." I've also turned to acupuncture, a jade roller, and facial massages by way of a glorious cork ball to deal with my own discomfort, all of which have helped the situation, at least on a temporary basis.
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