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What is a TMJ Doctor?

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

Date: November 20, 2011

Because many common symptoms of TMJ problems often can be the result of other medical conditions, those who represent themselves as “TMJ Doctors” (or “TMJ Specialists”) must be able to not only recognize common TMJ problems, but also must be adequately trained and have sufficient past experience to enable them to accurately diagnose the vast number of other problems that can produce these common TMJ symptoms:

  • Facial and jaw pain
  • Diminished jaw motion
  • Facial and temporal headaches
  • Jaw muscle spasm and tension

Whether the symptoms you are concerned about are due to a facial migraine, a nerve pain problem, disease in a salivary gland or sinus, a thyroid condition, brain tumor, or strained Temporomandibular joints and jaw muscles, the “TMJ Doctor” you see must be skilled in making what is called a “differential diagnosis.” From a patient’s perspective, that means you need to know with a degree of medical certainty that your ‘TMJ’ problem is truly due to a local muscle and joint problem, and not due, instead, to some underlying medical disease process.

In today’s world, particularly in communities with access to major medical centers, hospitals or universities, you should expect your “TMJ Doctor” to have an academic appointment or faculty position at one of those institutions. He or she should also be involved with teaching, lecturing, and/or publishing, as these positions and efforts are a clear indication that there is a commitment to learning and advancement of knowledge.

Most important, don’t be fooled by the ‘TMJ Doctor” who has high-tech computerized  equipment that (allegedly) determines whether your bite is bad or if your jaw is in the wrong position. Though imaging technology (CT scans and MRI’s) is often important in making an accurate diagnosis, the vast majority of all TMJ problems can be diagnosed accurately with a careful history and examination. The adage, “The diagnosis is in the history if the doctor chooses to listen” holds true in just about all these situations.

Lastly, because most TMJ problems respond to treatment over time and with supportive measures to heal the injured TM joints and muscles, treatment most commonly should not require changes to your teeth or bite. If your “TMJ Doctor” recommends ongoing bite adjustments (grinding the tooth surfaces with a drill), crowns to fix your bite, or extensive orthodontics as the primary focus of care, these should be looked at suspiciously, and you should definitely seek a second opinion.

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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