Braces are great at realigning teeth and creating a straighter smile- this is what they were designed to do. Alongside accessories like rubber bands and headgear, braces can have a significant impact on someone’s life by giving them a beautiful smile and a more functional bite. But is it possible that while fixing one problem they could create another? In other words, can completing orthodontic treatment with braces lead to having a TMJ disorder? Read on to find out more about TMJ disorders, treatments, and the slightly complicated relationship between braces and TMJ dysfunction.
What is a TMJ Disorder?
Let’s begin with addressing what it means to have a TMJ disorder. TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, which connects your jaw to your skull. This sliding joint is made up of bone, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and an articular disk. If something goes wrong with the way that this joint functions it can cause discomfort, pain, and popping or locking sensations in the jaw. This joint dysfunction is often referred to simply as TMJ, but another commonly used acronym is TMD or temporomandibular joint dysfunction. Just like the other joints in your body, the TMJ is subject to injury both from acute incidents and from regular wear and tear.
While it is difficult to determine the exact cause of an individual’s TMJ dysfunction, it often occurs as a result of one or more of the following factors:
- Habitual grinding of the teeth
- Acute injury to the jaw
In many cases, it is a combination of several of the above factors that result in the development of a TMJ disorder rather than one isolated incident. Additionally, just because you have one of these factors does not mean that you will definitely develop a TMJ disorder.
Common Treatments for TMJ Dysfunction
If you do start to have TMJ problems, there are several options, both conservative and surgical, that can be considered for treatment.
- The application of moist heat and ice packs. Rotating the use of heat or ice, typically for 10 minutes at a time, can help to soothe the pain and achiness.
- Gentle jaw stretches.
- Over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Motrin or Aleve. Like most heat and ice packs, these can help reduce pain-inducing inflammation but don’t address the root cause of the issue.
- Using splints or night guards. These devices are worn over the teeth and can reduce the grinding that can contribute to TMJ dysfunction symptoms. Since grinding can cause TMJ pain, splints and night guards can actually help fix the root cause of the problem.
- As a last resort, surgery can be used for the treatment of TMJ disorders
This is not an exhaustive list of potential treatments, but these options are a good starting point if you are looking for relief from a TMJ disorder. If you continue to suffer from TMJ issues or your symptoms suddenly become more severe, check in with a doctor or a dentist as soon as possible.
TMJ with Braces
Now that we have established a better understanding of what it means to have a TMJ disorder, let’s bring the discussion back to the original question- can braces be a possible root cause of TMJ dysfunction in an individual who did not have any issues prior to getting orthodontic treatment with braces?
Braces are meant to straighten your teeth and move them into “better” alignment. While braces can also be used to improve common bite problems like overbite, underbite, and crossbite, the exact way in which braces impact the way the TMJ functions might not be taken into consideration. This joint is a complex structure, and if one of the parts is pulled even slightly out of alignment it could cause dysfunction in the entire joint-resulting in the pain and discomfort that is commonly associated with TMJ disorders. So in short, yes, it is possible that braces might be a contributing factor to TMJ dysfunction in individuals who did not have an existing issue. With this being said, however, it is likely that those who do develop a TMJ disorder after undergoing treatment with braces already had another underlying factor that also played a part in the development of the disorder. These factors could be several of these things that were discussed in the section above, including but not limited to genetics, arthritis, and habitual grinding of the teeth.
On the flipside, TMJ with braces can sometimes be a positive combination. If used by a professional who is knowledgeable in the way that the TMJ functions, straightening teeth with aligners or braces can actually help to realign the jaw and improve function within the TMJ. If the teeth and bite do not allow for the jaw to function optimally, bringing each of them into more appropriate alignment can do wonders in terms of restoring proper function to the joint.
To sum it all up, braces have the potential to exert opposite effects on patients in terms of TMJ dysfunction. TMJ with braces is not always a direct cause and effect relationship where the TMJ is caused by braces. Particularly for those who have existing risk factors, treatment with braces that are completed by someone without specific expertise in the area of TMJ dysfunction could result in problems. However, treatment with braces that are carried out by a practitioner who is knowledgeable in the area can have the opposite impact and actually reduce the discomfort and pain associated with TMJ disorders.