Poor Sleep Might Be a Warning Sign of TMJ

Apr 19, 2016, by Dr. Becky Coats

Because our jaw is the main support for our airway, especially when muscles relax during sleep, sleep apnea and TMJ are closely linked. An unhealthy jaw position not only puts stress on the temporomandibular joint and our chewing muscles, it also makes the airway more likely to collapse.

But there’s another way that TMJ can disturb your sleep, and a new analysis suggests it might be one of the most reliable signs that you’re developing the disorder.

Continued Insight from the OPPERA Study

The new data comes from an analysis of data from the Orofacial Pain: Prospective Evaluation and Risk Assessment (OPPERA) study, sponsored by the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). With about 3200 subjects who didn’t initially have TMJ, the study, which has been running since 2006, has already told us much about who is at greatest risk for developing TMJ. But exploring the richness of the data will likely continue to give us new insights for years.

Looking at the data shows that poor sleep may be the best indicator that a person is developing TMJ.

As part of information gathering for OPPERA, subjects were given the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index questionnaire at the beginning of the study. They were also asked about their subjective sleep quality every three months. Researchers looked at sleep quality data for 220 people who developed TMJ and compared it to 193 controls who didn’t develop TMJ over the course of the study.

They found that sleep quality remained stable in people who didn’t develop TMJ, but significantly declined for people who did develop TMJ. In fact, declining sleep quality turned out to be one of the strongest risk factors for TMJ, being associated with a 73% increase in risk. This risk was independent of other factors that might have accounted for heightened TMJ risk, such as comorbid condition, nonpain facial symptoms, demographic characteristics, and psychological stress.

What’s the Connection?

Explaining this relationship is a little difficult. It has always been known that TMJ is associated with poor sleep. It was suggested this was because people who develop TMJ are in pain, and often have a higher sensitivity to pain, which could lead to poor sleep. But one of the findings of this study is that neither pain nor pain sensitivity are correlated with poor sleep in advance of TMJ.

Of course, this might be another affirmation of the tight connection between TMJ and snoring or sleep apnea.

And then there’s the possibility that this study is hinting at some other relationship between poor sleep and TMJ that we haven’t yet discovered.

Whatever the relationship between these two problems, it’s important to consider a TMJ dentist who is also skilled in the treatment of sleep disordered breathing. Grapevine dentist Dr. Becky Coats has extensive training and experience in treating both conditions and can help you achieve quality sleep and relief from TMJ symptoms like jaw pain and headaches. Please call (817) 481-6888 for an appointment at Grapevine Dental Care.