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Temporomandibular disorders comprise a collection of medical conditions affecting one or both jaw joints and/or their associated muscles and other tissues. Symptoms include pain and difficulties in making normal jaw movements, such as those used in speaking, chewing, swallowing or forming facial expressions.
The two temporomandibular joints, located in front of the right and left ears, connect the lower jaw, the mandible, to the temporal bone of the skull. They are the most complex joints in the body, richly endowed with nerves and muscles that allow coordinated movements in three dimensions. Jaw injuries and various forms of arthritis can give rise to TMJ Disorders but in general, the cause or causes (etiology) of TMJ Disorders is unknown.
What is known that these disorders are more prevalent in women, occurring during the childbearing years, and that the female to male ratio of those affected increases with the severity of the disorder so that for patients with the most severe chronic and painful TMJ Disorders the ratio of females to males approaches 9:1.
Traditionally patients with jaw problems have been seen by or referred to general dentists or oral surgeons, who have often sought to remedy the problem by altering the teeth or operating on the jaw. The TMJ Association (TMJA) was formed in 1986 as a patient support group in Milwaukee concerned with the lack of understanding of etiology and the multiple but unproven treatments in use - some of which caused even greater pain and disability. TMJA has since grown into a national non-profit advocacy organization promoting research, education, and support of patients and their families. Through the Association’s efforts, the National Institutes of Health has issued a “less is best” recommendation urging patients to avoid invasive procedures such as jaw surgery, if at all possible, and has increased TMJ research. There is greater attention to the interplay of gender, genetics, environmental and behavioral factors in the etiology of TMJ Disorders and a major study is underway exploring risk factors.
Over the decade, the Association has sponsored five scientific meetings in conjunction with the National Institutes of Health aimed at expanding the base of TMJ science and making recommendations for further research. There is now consensus that the TMJ Disorders represent a complex family of disorders best studied with a systems approach in which investigators from many disciplines work as a team, exploring all aspects of the disorder from genes and molecules to the whole person living in an environment.
The most recent scientific meeting explored the finding that many TMJ patients experience one or more other systemic conditions that also predominantly or exclusively affect women, including chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, generalized pain conditions, interstitial cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and vulvodynia. Scientists at the meeting were enthusiastic that discovering a common pathway linking these overlapping conditions would have the potential of leading to a therapy that might benefit all of them.
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