Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ or TMD) can have many surprising impacts on your body. People are surprised to learn that TMJ can lead to headaches, back pain, or tingling fingers. These effects are surprising in part because they can be distant from the source in the jaw joint. But they can also be surprising because the link isn’t immediately obvious, like ringing in the ears .

Now researchers have demonstrated that there may be a connection between TMJ and a reduced flow of saliva. We don’t know why this connection might be, or even if it’s really a causal link, but if it does turn out to be true, it can contribute to another symptom of TMJ: excessive tooth wear.

A woman having her saliva tested with a cotton swab

Linking TMJ to Saliva

In this study, researchers were testing to see if people with TMJ did have a lower saliva production than people without the jaw imbalance. To find out, they compared saliva production between 45 women with TMJ and 30 women without TMJ.

Because TMJ is a diverse condition with many subtypes, researchers also tried to figure out whether the subtype of TMJ had any impact on saliva flow. They used related characteristics to break TMJ into different subtypes, including:

  • Chronic pain
  • Limited jaw movement
  • Depression
  • Somatization

People will probably recognize most of these characteristics, but few people are familiar with the concept of “somatization.” Somatization is when doctors suspect physical symptoms arise from psychological rather than physical causes. Somatization is a controversial aspect of TMJ. It certainly is reminiscent of telling women that their symptoms are “all in their head,” but it seems to be a genuinely documented phenomenon, and it plays a major role in the development of TMJ for some people.

The results showed that, overall, women with TMJ had significantly lower flow of saliva than the women without TMJ. Women with lower saliva levels didn’t notice that they had lower flows, though.

The strongest link between TMJ and saliva flow was for women who had physical characteristics of TMJ with no evidence of psychological causes. Women with the lowest saliva levels had limited jaw movement and no somatization. This could potentially lead us to an explanation for the link, but so far the researchers didn’t forward an explanation for the connection.

TMJ, Tooth Wear, and Saliva

Excessive tooth wear is a common symptom of TMJ. We’ve often looked at this problem in terms of bruxism: teeth clenching and grinding. People with TMJ are more likely to grind their teeth, which can speed tooth wear.

However, this new symptom could also partly explain accelerated tooth wear. Saliva does many things in your mouth. It not only helps you moisten and predigest food for swallowing, it helps control oral bacteria, neutralize acid, and repairs your teeth. With low saliva levels, people with TMJ may develop more plaque, leading to higher cavity risk. They may also take longer to neutralize acid from acidic foods and beverages, which will soften teeth and make them more prone to wear. And without the minerals in saliva hardening them, teeth will naturally be softer and more prone to wear.

Repairing damaged teeth is often necessary for people with TMJ. But the earlier we can detect the condition, the better we can prevent damage to your teeth.

If you suspect you might have TMJ in the Detroit area, we can help. Please call TMJ dentist Dr. Jeffrey S. Haddad at (248) 480-0085 today.