Can TMJ Cause Back Pain?
TMJ, more commonly known as TMD (Temporomandibular Dysfunction), can cause all sorts of aches and pains. Can TMJ cause back pain? It depends. We have to get a little more specific in our definition of back pain, because back pain could mean anything from the base of the skull all the way down to your buttocks. So, let’s hone our definition.
TMJ can cause pain at the base of the skull, the neck, and shoulders. You might be thinking, how can jaw issues affect things all the way back there? It has to do with reciprocal muscles and how they are affected. Also, referred pain can come into play as well.
Let’s start with some basics about TMJ pain. TMJ pain is associated with a disharmony between the jaw joint, jaw muscles, and the teeth. When these three components are not functioning well together, pain develops. Usually the pain is localized to one of these components, i.e. jaw joint, jaw muscles, or teeth, but not always.
So, we circle back to the question, can TMJ cause back pain? Yes, in some limited circumstances it can cause pain in the base of the skull, neck, and shoulders. But how?
The human body’s musculature is designed so there are opposing or balancing muscle groups. Remember the law of physics, “For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”? You can loosely think of this when thinking about the muscles. Take for example a patient with TMJ who clenches and grinds their teeth. The jaw muscles are obviously going to be working overtime and are most likely sore and tired. Remember that the jaw muscles don’t function alone. When the jaw muscles activate, there are stabilizer or reciprocal muscles working throughout the neck and shoulder region counter balancing the forces created by the jaw muscles. These muscles themselves become overworked, sore, and tired. This can lead to neck aches, shoulder aches, and tension headaches at the base of the skull. The human body is complex and we have to keep that in mind when helping a patient suffering from TMJ dysfunction.
Lastly, a patient can have referred pain. Referred pain is where the perceived source of the pain is not directly associated with the actual source of the pain. This is literally where a pain in the jaw can become a “pain in the neck.” It all has to do with the nerves of the head and neck. The best way to describe the nerves running through the head and neck is to imagine a major city’s highway system at rush hour, including all the on and off-ramps, overpasses, lane splits, convergences, etc. Imagine the pain signal coming from the source as one little car on this complex highway system. Most of the time, that little car (pain signal) stays in its lane all the way to the brain. In this case, the brain correctly associates the pain signal with its actual source.
Sometimes that little car (pain signal) changes lanes. This means that the signal doesn’t make it to its final destination in the brain like it was supposed to. The brain then thinks that the pain is “traveling” from a different source or location. Those pain signals can change one lane or many, and in the end it causes the brain to misinterpret the correct source of the pain. Referred pain is a very complex topic, but suffice it to say a pain in the jaw can literally become a “pain in the neck.”