John C. Chao, D.D.S.

Research Associate Professor, University at Buffalo, SUNY
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Ostrow School of Dentistry, USC

(626) 308-9104

News & Press

1 In 3 Whiplash Sufferers Develop Jaw Joint (TMJ) Symptoms

One in three people exposed to whiplash trauma are at risk of developing delayed TMJ (jaw joint) symptoms, according to research in the August, 2007, issue of the Journal of the American Dental Association.

This research, conducted at Umea University, Sweden, involved 60 patients who were admitted to the emergency rooms directly after they were involved in a rear-end car collision. They were re-examined one year later. According to the researchers the incidence of new symptoms of TMJ (temporo-mandibular joint) pain after one year was five times higher in the injured group than the control group (not involved in any accident). Thirty – four of the 60 patients developed TMJ problems compared to 7 per cent for the control group.

The TM joint is one of the most complex joints in the body. Located on each side of the head, these joints work together and can make many different movements, including a combination of rotating and translocational (gliding) actions during speaking or chewing. When chronic TMJ symptoms develop for any reason, movements of the jaw during speaking or chewing may become painful. In worse cases the patient may not be able to open or close the mouth.

Symptoms of TMJ dysfunction typically include painful clicking, popping of the jaw joints, pain in the ear, ringing in the ear, dizziness, headaches, eye pain, sensitivity to sunlight, and inability to smoothly or painlessly open or close the mouth. Symptoms can be mild and transitory, or may become chronic and distressful. The intensity and frequency of these symptoms may lead to sleep disturbances, use of pain relievers and the need to take sick leave.

Because of the delay in the emergence of the TMJ symptoms after an accident the patient may not suspect trauma as the cause. Furthermore the patient may suspect that the cause of the problems as emanating from the ear, eye or head, rather the TMJ. Often the physician will refer the patient to the dentist for TMJ examination.

Treatment for TMJ disorder includes physical therapy, prescription of muscle relaxants and mild jaw exercises. For more persistent conditions the use of a "splint," or bite guard, in conjunction with physical therapy and other complex forms of treatment, may be employed.

Therefore if one has jaw pain along with symptoms such as headaches or ear pain, the dentist and the physician should be consulted. The physician will rule out medical reasons for the symptoms, while the dentist will determine whether TMJ disorder is present.

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