“TMJ” is a popular term used to describe a disorder of the jaw joints, chewing muscles and bite. Symptoms masquerade as a multitude of other problems such as sinus headaches, migraines, neck and shoulder stiffness, earaches and tooth problems. These symptoms are caused by an instability in your jaw joint and can be successfully treated by a dentist who has specialized training in managing these disorders, such as Dr. Paul Sheils.

TMD (TMJ dysfunction) is the dental term describing a collection of symptoms, which result when the chewing muscles, bite and jaw joints do not work together correctly. TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joints. These are the two joints that connect your jaw to your skull. When these joints are not functioning as designed, they can cause many problems such as an unstable chewing system.

What does it mean to have an Unstable Chewing System?

The three reasons people lose their teeth are dental decay, gum disease and an unstable chewing system. Your chewing system consists of how your teeth fit together when your chewing muscles move your lower jaw up and down. An unstable chewing system, if not discovered and addressed, can cause excessive tooth wear; cracked or loose teeth; sensitive teeth; jaw joint disorders and early tooth loss.

An unstable chewing system is an often overlooked and sometimes “silent” oral disease that many people dismiss as “natural aging or wearing” of teeth. In much the same way a set of tires that are not aligned properly wear faster and do not perform optimally, an unbalanced bite can lead to excessive or abnormally accelerated tooth wear.

What are the signs and symptoms?

You may have an unstable chewing system if you have one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

  • worn down, chipped, cracked or broken teeth
  • teeth that are sensitive to hot, cold and/or biting
  • multiple “root canals”
  • mobile or loosening teeth
  • clenching/grinding of your teeth
  • abfractions or wedge-shaped notches in the teeth at the gum line;
  • gum recession
  • severe localized bone loss around teeth
  • pain in the teeth and/or TMJ when you chew
  • headaches and facial muscle pain
  • teeth or dental work that fracture or break

On your back teeth, you will notice that there are points (cusps) and valleys (fossae). In a healthy bite, the cusps of your back teeth fit tightly into the fossae of your opposing teeth while the two jaw joints (TMJ’s) seat completely in their sockets. This is the least stressful and least destructive bite relationship for your teeth, bone, gums, TMJ’s, jaw muscles, and your existing dental work.

The human bite is capable of generating forces measuring up to 900 pounds per square inch – so when your bite does not line up correctly, damage can and will occur.

In addition, a healthy bite has of the proper amount of overlap of the upper front teeth over the lower front teeth to guide our side to side chewing motion (think of guardrails on a roadway). The front teeth protect the back teeth by limiting excess stress during chewing. When the front teeth are not aligned properly or are worn down, they are unable to provide this protective function, damaging the front and back teeth, bone, gums, TMJ’s and jaw muscles.

How is bite disease treated?

If your long-term goal is good dental health, you may choose to learn more about your unstable chewing system. We will recommend a detailed evaluation of your bite, which includes mounted study models, digital images and detailed records of your current condition. In many cases, bite splint therapy will be required to relax overworked chewing muscles and allow your jaw joint to properly seat in the jaw socket; years of an unstable bite can create chewing muscle imbalance and/or a TMJ disorder. Once your jaw joint is seated in the socket, a diagnosis of how your upper and lower teeth fit together is made to consider the most conservative option to stabilize your bite.

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