One of the most surprising things about temporomandibular joint disorders (TMJ or TMD) is how far-reaching its symptoms can be. People can experience symptoms as far away as their fingers and low back. But these connections aren’t one-way, either. Problems elsewhere in the body can contribute to the development of TMJ. 

Now a new study highlights this link, showing that people who have chronic low back pain are more likely to develop TMJ than people without back pain. This connection can help us understand the powerful links between TMJ and other chronic pain conditions. 

Woman walking on trail experiences lower back pain

A Large Matched-Case Study

For this study, researchers looked at over 65,000 patients who were newly diagnosed with low back pain. They compared these patients to a healthy population of more than 195,000 healthy controls. There were three controls for each patient, and the controls were sex- and age-matched to reduce variables. They then looked at each subject for 15 years after initial diagnosis. 

The results showed that those with low back pain were more than 1.5 times as likely to develop TMJ as those without. The two groups seemed to deviate around 9 years, when low back pain was associated with a much steeper increase in TMJ diagnosis, which persisted through the end of the follow-up period. In addition to low back pain, increased risk of TMJ was linked to osteoporosis, young age (<40 years), and higher insurance premiums. The latter is likely linked to the presence of low back pain, which can increase insurance premiums. 

What’s the Link?

In looking at the data, researchers attempted to explain the connection. They postulated that the cause is changes in how the body can recruit muscles to work together. Previous studies have shown that people with low back pain can have more difficulty recruiting neck muscles to help perform jaw-related tasks. This puts more stress on the jaw muscles and other parts of the jaw system, which, over time, can contribute to developing TMJ. 

The Connection Can Go Both Ways

This study confirms what we’ve seen. When you have dysfunction and pain in other parts of the body, it can interfere with the normal function of your jaw, which can lead to you developing TMJ over time. 

However, we have also seen the problem go the other way. If you have jaw dysfunction, it can mean your jaw is recruiting neck and other muscles more often, which can stress them. Over time, this leads to problems such as headaches (including chronic migraine), neck pain, and back pain. We more often see pain in the upper back linked to TMJ, but we have seen it in the lower back sometimes, too. 

Fortunately, treatment can help. With an oral splint, we can hold your jaw in a more comfortable, resting position. This reduces the need to recruit the assistance of neighboring muscles, reducing tension and pain, and increasing function. 

TMJ Treatment in St. Louis

If you are suffering jaw pain, jaw sounds, limited jaw function, or other TMJ symptoms, we can help you find relief. Please call (314) 678-7876 today for an appointment with TMJ dentist Dr. Chris Hill at City Smiles in downtown St. Louis.