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Making a Difference for People With TMJ

Feb. 1, 2011
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Approximately 35 million people suffer from some degree of temporomandibular joint disorder, commonly called TMJ. For more than two decades Terrie Cowley, president and co-founder of the TMJ Association (TMJA), has been striving to raise awareness, advocate for TMJ patients' rights, and encourage research for improved treatment and diagnosis methods. Equally comfortable reassuring a patient or conferring with a senator, her dedication seems to know no bounds.

What is TMJ?

TMJ is a complex condition that is manifested by pain in the jaw area of the face. When someone experiences TMJ, it may be a clicking and popping in their jaw with some mild discomfort; for others it might mean extreme pain and not opening their mouth any wider than a straw to drink fluids. For most people who have a TMJ problem, it is a short-lived discomfort that goes away on its own. For others it can go on being a chronic pain condition.

What have researchers learned about TMJ?

What we've learned over the years is that TMJ can be a chronic condition for 10% of the sufferers, and for them there really isn't a way to “fix it.” We've also discovered that TMJ primarily affects women in their childbearing years. Most recently, we've learned that sufferers of TMJ often experience other conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, endometriosis and a number of other conditions. The latest research suggests that there may be a connection between TMJ and these other overlapping pain conditions.

Is there a reliable treatment for TMJ?

The NIH [National Institutes of Health] takes a “less is best” approach with TMJ. They recommend avoiding procedures causing permanent changes to your jaw or bite like repositioning the jaw with a splint, grinding of the teeth, or having surgical treatment. Typically people go to the dentist when they have TMJ pain. Unfortunately, current science suggests, for most people, TMJ pain isn't going to be fixed by manipulating the jaw or teeth. We recommend people see their primary care physician first.

In what ways has the TMJA made a difference?

We unite people with TMJ conditions by sharing their stories and linking them up with valuable medical and legislative information. We believe that no one has to suffer alone! Our website is one of the most comprehensive sources of TMJ information for patients and researchers alike. Our ongoing efforts include educating the medical community—raising awareness that TMJ is a real condition causing real pain. Our advocacy at the federal level has been important to increasing TMJ research funding.

What inspires your work at the TMJA?

Reading new scientific papers that advance the science in this area is very exciting. Knowing patients who have undergone multiple surgeries but still find joy in their lives in the midst of their pain, hanging up after a phone conversation with a TMJ patient and realizing I've really helped them—those are the moments when I know that our work, and the work of our great volunteers, is making a difference.

For more information about TMJ and the TMJ Association, visit www.tmj.org.


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