TMJ problems can be a real burden that leads to pain, limitations on eating and embarrassing jaw joint noises. In my practice as a dentist who focuses primarily on TMJ and jaw problems, patients often ask me, “Can braces cause TMJ?” Although there’s no easy answer, I’ll do my best to explain.
Can Braces Cause TMJ? Three Scenarios
If you’re concerned that braces are the cause of your jaw issue, you’ll likely fit into one of the following three scenarios:
Scenario 1: You finished orthodontic treatment less than a year ago and suddenly you have TMJ symptoms.
Let’s give this scenario some thought as there may be some concerns about what we call new bite relationships. Think about this: your teeth have been moved and have had to settle into new positions. That means your jaw muscles, tendons, joint ligaments, cartilage, bones, lubricating systems, and shock-absorbing disc all had to adapt to the new environment. Thankfully, most people experience no problems with this process.
But in some people the end orthodontic result can lead to asymmetric tooth contacts or tooth contact patterns that force the lower jaw into an awkward position when the teeth are brought together. Therefore, the jaw is consistently forced into postural positions while chewing that lead to sprains and strains. If this scenario occurs in a person who has daytime behaviors that prompt tooth contact or who has a history of night clenching or grinding, these awkward bite postures will have a greater impact and can lead to even more severe TMJ symptoms than are caused by the behaviors themselves.
If you fit into Scenario 1, the answer to the question, can braces cause TMJ? is Yes! You should to return to the orthodontist or dentist who moved your teeth. There’s a chance that to “shore up the foundation” a short phase of orthodontics or some dental procedures to provide more tooth contact symmetry can do the trick. If you don’t feel your complaints are being taken seriously, a second opinion is recommended.
In addition, you may need change your daytime over-use behaviors such as teeth grinding or clenching, wear a protective oral appliance at night, and perform jaw exercises. It’s important to identify any other risk factors that could play a role, as well. (See a list at the end of this post.)
Scenario 2: You have braces now and your TMJ problems just began.
Regardless of whether your braces are the traditional or the Invisalign-type removable aligners, if you experience occurrences of pain (beyond what’s expected during orthodontics) or joint noises and/or locking, you must report your symptoms to your orthodontist or the dentist providing your treatment. Your braces might not need to be removed, but instead adjusted to make sure your jaw is no longer stressed.(Also, it is important to be sure that the orthodontic process is not being compromised by outside factors, such as those that are listed at the end of this post.
Scenario 3: You had braces, but they were removed many years before your TMJ problems began.
Can braces cause TMJ if they were removed years ago? It’s unlikely that braces removed years before your jaw symptoms first started could be the primary or exclusive cause of TMJ. In fact, the vast majority of studies conclude that even if one’s bite is “off” for decades (one’s natural bite or an orthodontically-created bite) there is little chance this single factor is the cause of TMJ problems.
If your long-ago removed braces are not the primary reason you have TMJ, then what is? Something clearly has happened, likely over a long period of time that caused fatigue and overworked, sprained, or traumatized your jaw muscles and joints.
If you were my patient, I would conduct a full assessment and start by asking you some very important questions that fall into four distinct groups:
1. Did You Have An Injury?
The TMJs and associated jaw muscles can be injured the same way knee or elbow structures can. Were you injured on the athletic field or in a car accident? Did you have a recent medical procedure that kept your mouth open for a long period of time or in an awkward position? Did you notice sudden jaw pain or popping while eating, yawning, playing a musical instrument, or even singing? Did you recently have dental work performed or a challenging wisdom tooth removal that could have compromised your jaw structures?
2. Do You Over-Stress Your Jaw?
Over-use behaviors and head postures can impact the structure and stability of your jaw muscles and temporomandibular joints (your TMJs). Do you chew gum or bite your nails, cuticles, or pens? Do you hold your eyeglass frames between your teeth? Do you grind or clench your teeth at night and/or during the day? Do you have work-related neck strain? Do you have longstanding neck symptoms that include pain and muscle tightness?
3. Has Your Health Changed?
Changes in the your medical health can also be a source of challenge to your jaw. Are you on a new medication? Have you stopped smoking? Do you have a new neuromuscular, rheumatologic and/or autoimmune disease? Are you profoundly depressed or have anxiety? Have you been diagnosed with a chronic illness? Do you have problematic insomnia, migraines or fatigue? Have you changed your diet to one that requires more consistent chewing of tougher foods? Even merely being concerned about your health is sufficient to initiate jaw muscle tension and pain.
4. Are You Stressed-Out?
A fatigued, conflicted, and unhappy brain is a source of muscle tension and can have a negative impact on your nervous and immune system. That can lead to a lower threshold of pain. Do you have ongoing challenges at home and or at work? Are you caring for a sick child or parent? Is your marriage in trouble? Are there financial worries? The list of critical life matters that can cause changes in the way you sleep, breath and hold muscle tension throughout your body are endless. Any of these changes can cause jaw-related symptoms.
If you answered yes to any of the above, your TMJ symptoms are likely the cause of a number of factors. It is crucially important to discuss these with the orthodontist or dentist who is handling your case.
So, the answer to the question, “Can braces cause TMJ?” is “Yes, sometimes!”
If you are considering braces for yourself or your children, inform the dentist or orthodontist of any jaw problems before you start treatment. A thoughtful practitioner will make a careful assessment of the history and clinical characteristics of every patient before determining how to proceed.