One thing we can pretty much all agree on is that right now is a pretty stressful time to be an adult. With so many problems going on in the world, not to mention personal and family issues, many people are experiencing higher levels of stress than ever before. From lack of sleep to other physical signs of stress, millennials are gaining a lot of media attention for struggling with stress in an unexpected way: It’s called temporomandibular joint dysfunction, and it’s taking its toll on this young generation.
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction is a condition where the temporomandibular joint of the jaw (the joint that connects the jaw to the rest of the skull) becomes misaligned. This misalignment can cause everything from tinnitus (ringing of the ears) and a clicking or popping sound when opening and closing the mouth to much more painful symptoms like headaches, neck and back aches, and even difficulty chewing, speaking, and opening and closing the mouth.
So, how could this possibly be caused by stress? Dr. Kelley Mingus, a dentist in Bend, Oregon, says it's all about how we position our bodies in stressful times.
"Sometimes when we’re stressed we engage in physical behaviors we may not engage in when we aren’t stressed," he says, "like clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth."
According to Mingus, all that clenching and teeth grinding (also known as bruxism) can cause or exacerbate temporomandibular joint disorder.
"What happens is that the stiffness in the jaw is either worsening a pre-existing condition, or it's tensing the muscles and joints," he says.
So, what can be done to eliminate temporomandibular joint dysfunction (or TMJ dysfunction for short)? According to Mingus, the answer is not so simple.
"Unfortunately, there isn’t a quick fix to stress or to temporomandibular joint dysfunction," he says.
To reduce signs of temporomandibular joint dysfunction, the first thing you need to do is stop the behaviors causing the symptoms to flare up. So no grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw. But unfortunately, many people who do these things know this is easier said than done.
"Sometimes people don’t even realize they’re doing it, which makes it really hard to stop," says Mingus.
Still, there are fixes. For example, Mingus says a custom mouth guard or orthotic can help reposition the jaw so the patient cannot grind his or her teeth. Another solution Mingus has seen great success with is neuromuscular dentistry, the process of realigning the temporomandibular joint so it no longer causes the pain and stiffness that is common with temporomandibular joint dysfunction.
Ultimately, says Mingus, "the course of treatment depends on the individual patient. There is no one-size-fits-all miracle cure."