Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) pain impacts more than just your jaw joint. It affects your entire body, and perhaps most importantly, it can rewire your brain to make even minor touches into pain, and prevents you from focusing on cognitive tasks.
Every Touch Becomes Painful
Brain scans of people with TMJ reveal they have very different responses to “innocuous” touches. In one study, low-frequency vibration of the index finger was performed on people with TMJ and healthy controls while their brains were monitored. TMJ sufferers had distinct regions of the brain activate, and more of them. In TMJ sufferers, the pain response network readied itself for even the most minor of touches. In addition, the hearing portion of the brain activated for TMJ sufferers, which may show us why they get tinnitus–the auditory cortex may be activating in response to pain.
Perhaps most importantly, the amygdala activated in TMJ sufferers. The amygdala is a region of the brain that is associated with learning. Your body is trying to understand its pain and learn ways to prevent it. This dedication of constant attention to your pain comes at a real cognitive price.
The Cognitive Cost of TMJ
People with TMJ have a harder time focusing on tasks because of the amount of effort that goes into keeping track of your pain. In a study involving 17 TMJ sufferers and 17 age-matched healthy controls, TMJ patients performed worse on cognitive tests. They were slower to complete a series of cognitive tests, and brain scans showed that their brains were responding differently to the tasks. They had to work harder to keep focused on the task, there seemed to be more of an emotional response to neutral tasks, and they put more effort into planning and making their movements. Parts of the brain that normally work together on these types of tasks were fragmented.
Researchers postulate that these effects are due to the cognitive demands of chronic pain. When you are suffering constant pain, it demands a lot of your brain power, leaving fewer resources for other things you need to do.
It’s unknown how TMJ treatment may deprogram these effects, but it’s likely that getting early treatment will prevent your brain from rewiring itself. If you are looking for relief from jaw pain, headaches, and other TMJ symptoms, please call