Jaw health is a critically important factor in the health of human beings. It not only impacts the ability to consume food, it has the potential to alter the chemistry throughout a person’s entire body. As this problem is becoming more recognized in people suffering from many different health issues, it has also revealed how increasingly widespread jaw dysfunction is. I have learned this firsthand. I would like to share a small part of my own health crisis, to illustrate how jaw and dental health can cause serious and wide-ranging health problems.
In August of 2018 I was trying to write a blog for Body Kinetics, I titled it, “My Health Blog,” I only got one paragraph into it before I must have walked away from it for the evening. Here is that single paragraph, written 3 days before my health began spiraling out of control. I only discovered this note five days ago, while rummaging through my iPad notes. I was looking for an old blog idea that I once had, so that I could finally complete it. I never got back to that blog idea, because I could not spend more than five minutes on a computer without getting disabling vertigo, for many months.
“Just because someone looks like they’re in great shape doesn’t always mean that they are. My condition… I am 38 years old; I weigh 143 pounds; my body fat percentage is about 5%. When I turned 36 years old, I could fall out of bed and run a 5:30 mile, a 20-minute 5K; and with a couple of weeks of track work, good warm-up and some track spikes I could run a 60 second 400 m.”
I do not know exactly what I meant to write about, but I think I wanted to write about some of the weird health issues that I was dealing with at the time. I think I was going to connect it to my inability to lift weights, due to the chronic neck pain and headaches it caused me. from pain. My would have been that looking fit does not always equate to having good health. I think that’s still a good article to write someday, but how I became nearly disabled, and because my treatment would likely benefit untold numbers of people, is more important.
At the time I wrote that paragraph, I could have listed more than a dozen different symptoms to explain how I was not feeling as healthy as I might have looked, to people who didn’t know me well. The occasional bout of vertigo, the migraine headaches, the torn meniscus, the arms that would burn and tingle after going for a run, are just some of the wide array of symptoms I had been dealing with. I often felt ill after strength training workouts, which is a big problem for a Personal Trainer. If the irony was really thick in that original blog, I might have included the bit about how my jaw was so locked up, that I couldn’t relax it during a run. That was a big deal in high school and college, my coaches always preached keeping our jaws loose while running. A relaxed face meant a relaxed neck, which kept the shoulders loose and the rest of the body with it. I have pictures of myself running a long sprint event at the College of San Mateo, where my jaw looks like it was dislocated to the side, it was just completely relaxed. I could no longer relax my jaw while running, in fact, I could hardly relax it at all. Even while sleeping I found myself tensing my jaw muscles. My wife, Tammy, and I occasionally joked about how my jaw looked so funny in that picture. Leading up to my injury, I had become very aware that my jaw tension was a problem. However, I never thought that it was part of the cause of all my problems. I could never have imagined at that time, that my jaw health, specifically the function of my bite, was the cause of most of my health problems.
That part about the jaw would have been so ironic, because only 3 days later I stood up from a squatted position, and felt an intense surge of pain, from my upper neck, around the top of my head and into my eyes. Within hours, I had trouble walking. Everything went downhill from August 23rd, my symptoms gradually worsened over the next two weeks. I walked like a drunk person, I was very weak and I had trouble concentrating. By early October, I weighed only 129 pounds, I had lost 14 pounds in less than 6 weeks. In December, I thought I was on the mend and had gained some of the weight back. Then I caught a cold, which ravaged my body with various other conditions. My immune system was very weak. In February of 2019, I was scrubbing a floor in the house, when I felt another rush of pain in my neck and head. Once again, my health went downhill. This time was much worse.
I start with this story, because I had been searching for answers to my health problems for years. After reflecting on it, all of my symptoms gradually increased over a period of 10 years, if not longer. Between August of 2018 and March of 2019, I saw 3 neurologists, a neurosurgeon, my Chiropractor, an endocrinologist, three expert body workers and several other medical specialists. I did dozens of different tests, but did not receive a definitive diagnosis. The best my neurologists and I could come up with was that I was experiencing chronic vestibular migraines, which could explain many of my symptoms.
One morning, the left side of my face went completely numb. That afternoon I had a session with one of my clients at Body Kinetics. When I explained what had happened to me, her eyes lit up, she knew something. She said to me, “I think you need to be treated for TMJ,” or something along those lines. TMJ, is commonly used to describe Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction; though TMD is the more accurate acronym. I never doubted her, I just didn’t think that it could possibly be the cure for almost everything that had ailed me for the previous 10 years. What is TMJ/TMD? TMJ is your temporo-mandibular joint, the fibrous connection between your lower jaw bone, the mandible bone, and your skull, the temporal bones. When this joint is compromised in some way, the condition is called TMD, the ‘D’ indicating ‘dysfunction’. How could my jaw possibly cause all of my health problems? OK, this is where it gets tough to explain. I won’t be able to explain every detail accurately, because only an expert in neuroscience and TMD would be able to do that. The problems that I have been experiencing are at least in part due to my jaw alignment. Specifically, I had an overbite and a lack of height in the molars on the right side of my mouth. When a person has improper jaw alignment, this will cause changes in how the jaw and facial muscles function. Eventually, the jaw structure remodels itself due to the type of stress that it incurs from everyday activities, like eating, talking, breathing, teeth grinding, etc. This gradually results in changes to the shape of your jaw bones and your palate, further causing misalignment of your teeth. Additionally, you will get altered muscle function, with some face, jaw and neck muscles becoming overactive, while others become less active. The resulting muscular compensation can even affect the alignment of your spinal column, which can affect how the entire body functions. This jaw dysfunction, inevitably leads to neural tension and stress on the trigeminal nerves. The trigeminal nerves are the major nerves of the face and jaw, and are very sensitive. Trigeminal nerves are roughly 100 times denser in C-fibers than any other nerve in the body. C-fibers are specific sensory nerves that transmit pain signals to your brain, among other things. Our bodies are very adaptive, and one of the things that triggers neurological adaptation is chronic pain. Because the trigeminal nerves handle roughly 60% of a person’s total nerve input in the body, chronic stress leads to adaptations that can affect all of the different systems in the body, especially the nervous system. One adaptation is an increase in the levels of two neuropeptides in the body, Substance P and Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide (CGRP). Substance P plays a role in increased pain signaling and can impact the permeability of different types of cells, altering the normal function of cells that may regulate hormones or cause inflammation. Elevated levels of both Substance P and or CGRP have been identified as direct triggers of migraines, as well as many other chronic illnesses, due to their effect on cellular function and blood vessel function. I was suspected to have been experiencing vestibular migraines, sometimes referred to as vascular migraines. That is how TMD and jaw dysfunction caused most, if not all, of my chronic neurological symptoms.
These types of migraines, disrupt my vestibular system, causing balance problems and when bad enough, weakness. The type of treatment I am undergoing is called Precision Dental Orthopedics. I have seen similar methods of jaw alignment therapy called by other names, but the goals are similar in many regards. The goal of my treatment has been to relieve the neural tension of the trigeminal nerves, reduce the compression at my temporomandibular joints and find the ideal position for my jaw to be aligned in. So far, this has been achieved by using a custom crafted dental splint, similar to an orthotic or a retainer. This splint has been used to gradually move my mandible forward to align my upper and lower teeth, and to begin widening my jaw bones. Nine months after beginning the treatment, my symptoms have improved tremendously, and the ideal position for my jaw has been found. Now, a permanent fix is in the works. I will have the dental splints in for several more months, before I get braces.
The basis of Precision Dental Orthopedics, is that your teeth jaw and neck need to work together so that you can bite and chew food without discomfort or pain, and with ease. To do this, the lower jaw bone needs to be forward enough to align with the upper jaw bone. The jaw also needs to be wide enough for a person’s tongue to easily fit between the upper teeth, so that it can rest on the roof of the mouth. When these components are misaligned, your entire neurological system can be thrown off. Symptoms such as jaw and face pain, fatigue, dizziness, migraines, sleep apnea (including apnea in toddlers) and much more can manifest out of improper bite function and jaw alignment. Improper tooth alignment can cause imbalances in the spinal cord, including scoliosis. TMD can cause a chain reaction of events to take place in a person’s body, much like in my case. Even the alignment of your cervical spine can be directly compromised by a bad bite, because the temporo-mandibular joint and the first and second cervical vertebrae are located very close to each other.
How did this happen? My TMD Doctor identified unnecessary tooth extraction as the main culprit, in my case. Prior to getting braces, I had both of my lateral incisors removed. These are the two teeth on either side of the upper, middle teeth. Having teeth unnecessarily extracted, is usually recommended when an Orthodontist determines that a person has too small a mouth to fit all of their teeth. As a teenager, my Orthodontist had straightened my teeth and given me a pretty smile, but he also set me on a path to chronic health problems. Why did my problems get so dramatic? As my TMD Doctor explained to my wife, during my first appointment, TMD and bite dysfunction cause unpredictable results. It’s like chaos theory, two people can have similar types of bite dysfunction, but you can never predict the symptoms they may each experience.
Like many people who have jaw dysfunction or TMD, I am considered to have a high Medical Utilization Rate. Numerous studies have found that patients with TMD have higher Medical Utilization Rates and higher medical costs than those without TMD. For nervous, respiratory, circulatory and digestive system conditions these rates and costs can be as high as 3 to 1, in those with TMD versus those without.
The alarming thing about TMD and other jaw and bite alignment problems, is that it appears to be a growing problem in the United States and other highly industrialized nations. Sadly, many people who have all of their adult teeth, have still developed jaw dysfunction and bite misalignment. Even toddlers and children, who have yet to develop their adult teeth, much less had any adult teeth removed, are developing jaw and bite dysfunction at early ages. For these children, problems can manifest such as behavioral issues, sleep apnea, digestive system problems and asthma. Why is this happening in children? Why has it happened in people who have not had any teeth unnecessarily extracted? The answer to that question may be… Evolution.
Researchers have examined the skulls of humans from as recent as 300 years ago, which is a relatively small period of time evolutionarily. Compared to many modern humans, our ancestors had significantly wider jaws and palates, teeth that were well aligned and larger nasal passageways. The period of time when the shift in our jaw structures began changing appears to have been the beginning of the Industrial Age. Humans in industrialized nations began to bottle feed their babies and begun serving soft, processed foods to toddlers. Meanwhile, children in less industrialized nations, continued to eat a more diverse array of natural foods, including harder items, such as nuts and raw vegetables. Dietary changes in industrialized nations appears to have altered the types of stress that has been applied to our jaws, which has altered the way that our jaw and facial bones have been modeled, to accommodate that stress. The result is a facial structure that is a disadvantage from day one.
Unfortunately, the modern goals of orthodontia are not typically geared towards improving jaw function, first and foremost, with aesthetics being secondary to improving and maintaining health. In my case, the main concern was aesthetics, with health being almost completely ignored. What would be a better way? I believe that treating jaw function as a critical component in overall health, is paramount in the health of the developing body. If children are examined and treated to encourage proper development of the jaw and facial structure; rather than treated after misalignment happens, for aesthetic purposes, fewer people will deal with the fallout that jaw dysfunction and TMD can cause. This may mean working with an expert in jaw and bite function during the formative years, rather than addressing misaligned teeth during the teenage years. However, in order for this to become common practice, we will need to see a shift in thinking amongst people in the established medical community. As it stands now, not every health insurance company will reimburse patients for this kind of treatment. This has made it a rather expensive solution for me and many others. Luckily, I have heard of more and more medical professionals who are incorporating bite therapy into their practices. My doctors have all been receptive to the treatment of my TMD, as a potential cure for my neurological symptoms. That kind of openness to different ideas, gives me hope that people who suffer from health issues resulting from jaw dysfunction, will someday be able to easily and affordably get the treatment that they need.
Lewis, K. R. (2019, September 19). Our Skulls Are Out-Evolving Us: A motley crew of scientists argue that our ever-shrinking skulls are wreaking havoc on our well-being. Retrieved from https://onezero.medium.com/our-skulls-are-out-evolving-us-and-that-could-mean-a-public-health-crisis-f950faed696d
Shimsack, D. (1998). Health care utilization by patients with temporomandibular joint disorders. Cranio, 185-193. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9852811