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TMJ Problems and Wisdom Tooth Removal – Is There a Right Time?

Author: Donald Tanenbaum DDS MPH - Board-Certified Orofacial Pain Specialist at New York TMJ & Orofacial Pain

Date: July 21, 2014

When the recommendation has been made for wisdom teeth removal, and the patient has (or has experienced TMJ problems), some very important factors must be considered because TMJ problems and wisdom teeth removal sometimes don’t play nice with each other. The trauma to the jaw during surgery can make TMJ problems flare and potentially cause longer-term problems including pain, additional joint noises and more challenging joint locking problems.

Consider the following case: An 18-year old female is preparing to go off to college in the fall. Although she is experiencing no pain symptoms associated with her wisdom teeth, her dentist and consulting oral surgeon have made a recommendation to have all four removed, in order to avoid potential problems while she’s away at college.

The patient and her parents are concerned that her recently stabilized TMJ problem (clicking, pain and sporadic morning locking) will flare up as a result of the extraction process. Is this a legitimate concern, or excessive worry?

Since TMJ problems are orthopedic in nature it is logical to assume that a difficult extraction event can cause a managed TMJ problem to resurface. This is particularly relevant if the patient mainly had joint problems that required care. Females more than males are at risk due to the fact that their TMJ structures are biologically more susceptible sprain and strain.

The following is my recommended list of questions that should be discussed before the patient goes ahead with the wisdom teeth extraction.

1. Should the teeth be left in place for a year or two to ensure further healing of the TMJ problem?

2. Should two teeth be taken out initially, instead of all four? (A lengthy surgery could therefore be avoided.)

3. Should a local anesthetic alone be used so that the patient could communicate with the surgeon if in fact she felt that the jaw was being stressed, or should sedation/general anesthetics be used to relax the patient’s muscles and diminish muscle tension due to fear.

4. Should an intravenous steroid be routinely used to minimize any potential muscle/ joint inflammation, which would lead to post-extraction pain, and excessive/prolonged limited jaw motion.

Clearly there are no easy answers to these questions. The important message is that if your son or daughter is in this position, please be proactive and ask the difficult questions.

Some more questions to consider:

    • Is the jaw clicking and/or locking due to instability of the joint ligaments or movement of the shock-absorbing disc?
    • Are the wisdom teeth impacted in bone, are they fully or partially erupted, and if impacted, are they lying on their sides? (If they are lying on their sides, it will likely require more time and more bone removal to be extracted).
    • Is there inflammation of the gum tissues surrounding or overlying the wisdom teeth? Or is the plan to remove them designed to prevent possible acute periods of pain while the patient is at school or traveling overseas for an extended period of time?
    • Is there concern that the erupting wisdom teeth may cause undesirable tooth movement after orthodontics has been completed?
    • Does the patient’s gender and age make a difference in the outcome?

Patients with TMJ histories must be handled thoughtfully, and with an open mind. Remember, the removal of wisdom teeth is most often an elective procedure. Delaying their extraction may carry with it additional risks, but a patient with a history of TMJ problems, (particularly a young female) is always at risk during the extraction process.

DISCLAIMER: The advice offered in response to your questions is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. Namely, we in no way offer a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendation for your particular situation. Our intent is solely educational and our responses to your actual questions serve as a springboard to discussion of a variety of dental topics that come up in a day-to-day dental practice. Any advice offered is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified professional.

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