For patients with temporomandibular joint dysfunction, the pain that radiates throughout the upper body from the condition can be debilitating. From jaw stiffness and clenching to bruxism and broken teeth, the pain of temporomandibular joint dysfunction doesn’t just stay in the jaw. It can affect other areas of the body, too. In fact, many patients with temporomandibular joint dysfunction experience pain throughout the head, neck and back. But a new study has found the illness may be causing another problem elsewhere in the body: gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
The study, which was a joint effort between the Dental College of Georgia in Augusta, Georgia, and the Fourth Military Medical University in Xi'an, China, revealed that patients who have temporomandibular joint dysfunction are at an elevated risk for also developing GERD, and those with GERD are at an elevated risk of having temporomandibular joint dysfunction.
Dr. Kelley Mingus is a dentist from Bend, Oregon, who treats temporomandibular joint dysfunction. He says the findings of the study are not surprising, given how interconnected our oral health is to our total body health.
"We already know that our mouths are a gateway to the rest of our body, so many ailments that occur in the mouth can have significant impact on the rest of our body," says Mingus.
He’s not wrong. Recent studies have connected poor oral health to everything from diabetes to cancer and even Alzheimer’s disease. Given what we already know, the temporomandibular joint dysfunction-GERD connection isn’t such a far stretch after all. But what could be causing these conditions?
Mingus theorizes that the stress from the pain of temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or even the stress that may be encouraging the dysfunction to occur, could be causing the GERD. Conversely, the GERD pain could be causing jaw clenching or stress that causes or worsens the instance of temporomandibular joint dysfunction.
"We just don’t know," says Mingus.
For his part, Mingus recommends a two-fold solution, treating both conditions simultaneously.
"If you have GERD, see a specialist or try an over-the-counter reflux product and see if that helps," he says. "If you think you have temporomandibular joint dysfunction or if you know you have it and aren’t actively treating it, see your dentist. We can put you on a path to wellness that will address the negative effects temporomandibular joint dysfunction has throughout your whole body."