Temporomandibular joint disorders (called TMJ or TMD) have many symptoms you might not automatically associate with your jaw. In fact, some of these symptoms are quite common. Headaches, neck pain, and ear symptoms such as tinnitus or vertigo are often associated with TMJ. Because these symptoms are widespread, it can make TMJ hard to distinguish from other conditions.
Some TMJ symptoms are relatively rare. However, they are still linked to the condition, and can be relieved with TMJ treatment. One of these less common symptoms is eye pain. A few people with TMJ experience regular eye pain. This might seem mysterious, but there are a few reasons why this happens.
The Pain Is Actually in Your Chewing Muscles
Sometimes, people think their eyes are hurting when it’s really their jaw muscles. The confusion comes from the fact that jaw muscles are actually very close to your eyes. The temporalis muscles, some of the most important jaw muscles, anchor just behind your eyes on either side of your head. Pain here isn’t in your eyes, and feeling around the source of the pain will reveal that it’s not in your eyes, but near them.
Other times, the jaw muscles aren’t experiencing the pain, they’re causing it. There are two sets of nerves that carry pain signals from your eye region. Some of them go directly into the brain, but others start at the base of the brain and wind around and through various tissues to reach the skin around your eyes.
Sometimes, tense jaw muscles can put pressure on these nerves. This can cause optical migraines, but it could also cause eye pain.
Other times, the pain is something that mixes the above phenomena.
Referred pain is when your brain has its wires crossed. The pain is coming from one place, but your brain thinks it’s coming from another. This might seem strange, but it’s actually quite common, especially when the source is a place where your body doesn’t expect pain. Then the brain interprets the pain as coming from someplace that it thinks of as a source of pain.
This can happen with your jaw muscles and your eyes. Pain coming from jaw muscles can be interpreted as coming from the eyes. If you try to think about the source of the pain, it still feels like it’s coming from your eyes. Touch the source of your pain, and it feels like it’s the eyes. But it’s not the eyes–it’s just that your brain can’t tell the difference.
How to Determine If TMJ Is the Cause
With all these confusing possibilities, how can you tell if TMJ is really the cause of your eye pain? It’s not easy, but it can be done.
First, talk to your family doctor or eye doctor about your eye pain. It’s good to eliminate any potential causes of eye pain, like acute glaucoma or conjunctivitis.
Second, consider when your eye pain tends to flare up. Does it seem to follow periods of intense jaw activity? This might be voluntary activity like talking and chewing, or it could be activity like clenching and grinding your teeth (bruxism). Remember, you might be grinding your teeth while you sleep.
Finally, check whether you have other TMJ symptoms like jaw popping and clicking, jaw pain, tooth wear, and ear symptoms.
Then, if you think TMJ might be the cause, schedule an appointment with a neuromuscular dentist for testing and diagnosis.