TMJ and Ear Pain

Pain that strikes the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects your jawbone to the skull, is most commonly caused by grinding your teeth at night — and actually mimics an earache. In fact, ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists have referred patients with ear pain to me for a dental exam because they couldn’t find the cause of the symptoms, leading them to suspect TMJ pain as the culprit.

Many people grind their teeth while sleeping, often a result of an abnormal bite, misaligned teeth, stress, or anxiety. If you think about stresses and to-dos while trying to fall asleep, you may be a world-class grinder. In our deepest sleep, we grind our teeth with 15 times the amount of force that we use to chew food. In fact, frequent grinders wear down the tooth enamel, which is a lot harder than bone. The torquing forces produced by grinding can damage the TMJ, triggering deep and constant earache-like pain.

If you suspect a TMJ disorder may be responsible for your ear pain, visit your dentist, who can fit you with a night guard to protect your teeth from night grinding. Without a guard, symptoms almost always get worse. This device will prevent your symptoms from worsening, but it will not reverse symptoms. It will take some getting used to, but a bonus to wearing the night guard is that it doubles as a retainer. I have worn one since dental school and my teeth have never shifted — and my TMJ pain never got worse.

Want to learn more about TMJ? Take our TMJ quiz and read our TMJ definition and “How Myofascial Release Treats Jaw Pain.”

Rick Miller is a dentist in Texas.

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