It has now been estimated that as many as 20 million Americans suffer with the symptoms of temporomandibular joint dysfunction. As with many other serious health problems including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer, its incidence has dramatically increased in the last few decades. In fact, in recent years, the number of patients suffering from the symptoms of TMJ dysfunction is escalating even more rapidly. As with most medical problems, an "ounce of prevention" is less expensive, less stressful, less time consuming, and enhances the quality of life far more than "a pound of cure."
Statistically, over 90 per cent of the TMJ cases I see involve jaws that are underdeveloped, at least to some degree. That is probably due primarily to the refinement of our diet, the "softness" of our food, the mineral depletion of our soils, and to food processing techniques that rob nutrients from our food sources. Dr. Weston Price did some remarkable research into this subject a number of years ago by studying primitive cultures. He discovered a coincidence between the underdevelopment of the jaws and the introduction of civilization and refinement of diet to those primitive cultures. Much of his work is published in his book entitled "Nutrition and Physical Degeneration." The Price-Pottinger Nutrition Foundation used Dr. Price's discoveries to design a study of their own which was done on cats. It involved several generations of cats. What they found was that as the cats were feed more refined diets, their jaws became increasingly smaller more underdeveloped, their bones became less dense, and their general health deteriorated. Both the structural and health deterioration continued and intensified with each successive generation of cats. For those of you who are interested, I believe both Dr. Price's book and a videotape about the Pottinger cats are available from the Price-Pottinger Nutrition Foundation. You can reach them at 1-800-366-3748.
I am a firm believer in the use of good nutrition to both prevent and cure TMJ and other health problems. There is ample evidence to support the idea that whole, fibrous, and organically nutritious foods promote well-developed jaws during the formative years and lessen TMJ dysfunction later in life.
The next reason for the recent dramatic increase in TMJ dysfunction has to do with stress. One of my previous articles was devoted to the stress component of TMJ dysfunction. As our society has developed, so have the demands on our time, energy, and money. We are able to document adrenal exhaustion and fatigue at higher incidences and at younger ages. The "industrial revolution" and now the "informational society" have come upon us so quickly. People have not had the time nor the resources required to develop a mental syntax that would allow us to respond to the rapidity of change in a way that prevents physical and/or emotional damage to ourselves.
One particularly profound and effective method of dealing with the stresses of life has been developed at a non-profit organization called the Institute of HeartMath. There, Lou Childre has developed and refined a very simple mental exercise that people learn quickly and apply at any time to minimize the negative effect stress can have on us. The technique enables people to entrain (balance) the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In fact, at my office we have a computer program developed at IHM that allows our patients to put one finger in a little device like is used to measure blood pressure, and play a "game" on the computer. The game allows them to see how effectively they can entrain their nervous systems and thereby control the damaging and devastating effects of stress.
A third and major way TMJ dysfunction may be prevented has to do with dental procedures, especially orthodontic procedures often done early in life. A very disproportionate number of my TMJ patients come to me presenting with "missing teeth" due to "orthodontic extractions." Let me ask a simple question. How much sense does it make to take jaws that are already so under-developed that the teeth are crowded and crooked, and then remove permanent teeth from them, just so the teeth can be straight? As far as temporomandibular joint health is concerned, I would liken that to throwing gasoline on a fire in an attempt to extinguish the fire. Not withstanding the TMJ concerns, the extraction of permanent teeth very often leads to a mid-face deficiency causing the most predominate features of the face to become the nose and the chin, instead of the beautiful smile. Although I absolutely believe the intentions of the dentist, orthodontist, and parents were honorable; I just as strongly believe the patient was really set up for TMJ failure by orthodontic extractions. TMJ symptoms are commonplace in these patients, even though full-blown TMJ dysfunction may not occur until the third or fourth decade of life. However, it can occur at any age.
At our office, we use non-surgical orthopedic techniques to first develop the jaws to their genetically ideal size and position prior to using orthodontic techniques to straighten the teeth. This approach offers the best of all worlds: full smiles with beautifully straight teeth, the best possible profile, and the best opportunity for TMJ health for a lifetime.