There are many conditions that can be confused with TMJ because they have overlapping symptoms. Tracking down the exact cause of your symptoms is crucial to ensuring you get proper treatment.

If you are experiencing jaw-related symptoms, TMJ is the most common cause, but in rare cases, a ganglion cyst may be to blame.

young woman looking concerned as she rubs her temple

What Is a Ganglion Cyst?

A ganglion cyst is a balloon of tough, fibrous tissue that’s filled with synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is the slippery liquid that lubricates and nourishes your joints, and that’s where ganglion cysts develop: on a joint. We don’t know what causes ganglion cysts, but they may be related to joint damage caused by trauma, stress, or wear, as they are sometimes associated with arthritis.

The most commonly affected joints are the wrists and ankles, but in rare cases the temporomandibular joint can be affected. In this case, the cyst develops right out of the joint capsule, which enfolds the cartilaginous cushioning disc.

A ganglion cyst is just one of many different types of cysts that can develop in or around the temporomandibular joint, causing similar symptoms.

Ganglion vs. Synovial Cysts

Ganglion cysts aren’t the only cysts that can cause TMJ lumps. Synovial cysts are closely related to ganglion cysts, with similar types of fluid and similar presentation. There is a distinction: the type of tissue that lines the fluid-filled cavity. A doctor can tell the difference by analyzing the lesion.

Usually, the two types of cysts have similar symptoms and even look the same with most types of imaging, including visual examination. The most important difference between these two cysts is their causes. Synovial cysts are more likely to be related to displacement or damage of the jaw joint. That means they are more likely to be a result of TMJ disorders.

How to Know if a Cyst Is Causing Your Symptoms

A ganglion cyst can produce many TMJ-like symptoms, such as jaw pain, tinnitus, or vertigo. However, a ganglion cyst probably won’t cause jaw clicking or popping, and the jaw pain will be only in the joint, with no pain in the muscles.

A ganglion cyst is more likely to cause a visible swelling at or near the jaw joint. It will happen on just one side, and all your pain will be related to that mass. The visible swelling is likely to happen before you notice any pain. Push on the swelling region. If it feels like it’s a fluid-filled balloon, then it’s a cyst. Often, if the cyst is close to the surface, light will shine through it. TMJ-related swelling is more likely to feel firm, like muscle.

Other Causes of Lumps in Jaw Joint

While a lump at the jaw joint might make us suspect a ganglion cyst, there are other potential causes of swelling in this region.

Swelling near the jaw joint might be your pre-auricular lymph node. Lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) store immune cells and filter some of the body’s fluids. If your lymph nodes swell, it’s likely that your immune system is activated to fight an infection nearby, such as an ear infection, tooth infection, salivary gland infection, or even gum disease.

Other times, the infection itself might be causing the swelling, as with infections of your salivary glands. These can be painful and might cause some symptoms similar to TMJ.

Swollen sebaceous glands can cause superficial swelling near the skin. These don’t usually cause painful jaw-related symptoms.

Treating Ganglion Cysts

Once a ganglion cyst begins to cause symptoms, surgical removal is the only treatment available. When the cyst is removed, symptoms should go away.

TMJ treatment , of course, has many more options, and because the condition is more complex and multifactorial, treatment isn’t always so simple. Often, symptoms will diminish and fade over time with treatment, but may return if treatment stops.

If you suspect that you may have TMJ in the Detroit area, please call (248) 480-0085 for an appointment with a TMJ dentist at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness in Troy, MI.