Temporomandibular joint dysfunction (called TMJ or TMD) already causes immense pain in the jaw, upper body, back, neck, and other areas of your body you wouldn’t think TMJ might affect. One of these unusual areas in your body that TMJ affects is actually your digestive system. Recent studies have shown a link between TMJ and GERD – gastroesophageal reflux.

Although researchers have not determined a causal relationship between the two, there are several possible explanations. The most likely explanation seems to be that sleep apnea links the two conditions. Columbus TMJ dentist Dr. Mike Firouzian can help you address the complex links between these conditions so you can get relief from pain and enjoy deep, restful sleep.

What Is GERD?

man with hands over his stomach

GERD is a digestive disorder that affects the muscle between the stomach and the esophagus – the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). It’s common to experience heartburn and indigestion from GERD, especially in pregnant women.

Gastroesophageal reflux occurs when the contents of your stomach go back into the esophagus. With normal digestion, the LES opens up to allow food and drink to pass into your stomach and then closes up to prevent stomach acids and food from going back into the esophagus. When gastroesophageal reflux takes place, the LES doesn’t close properly due to it being weak or too relaxed. This then causes your stomach contents to flow back into your esophagus.

GERD and TMJ Risk

In a recent study conducted by the Fourth Military Medical University in Xiang, China, and the Dental College of Georgia in Augusta, researchers looked at more than 1500 people with chronic TMJ, matching them with an equal number of non-TMJ sufferers matched for age, sex, and other characteristics.

They found that those who have TMJ dysfunction have a higher risk of developing GERD, and those who have GERD were nearly three times as likely to develop TMJ. In other words, if you have TMJ or GERD, you must watch out for both disorders.

GERD and TMJ Linked by Stress

So how exactly do these two conditions influence each other? Although the study found that the conditions were related, they could not confirm why. There were several different theories, however.

One possible explanation is that both conditions are linked to stress. This association is well demonstrated. People with stress are about twice as likely to experience damaging GERD symptoms. In a similar way, stress can lead to TMJ and can make TMJ symptoms worse.

This theory finds support from previous research by the same team. This earlier research found that GERD was associated with bruxism: teeth clenching and grinding. Bruxism is a common, damaging condition associated with TMJ.

In this case, TMJ treatment can play an important role. Once the two conditions develop, they create a mutually reinforcing condition: TMJ makes GERD worse, and GERD worsens TMJ. Unless you treat both conditions together, you might not enjoy the relief you seek. Columbus TMJ dentist Dr. Firouzian can work with you and your doctor to develop an interdisciplinary treatment plan.

GERD and TMJ Linked by Sleep Apnea

Another possible explanation is that sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea, is the link. In a comment on the original research, an otolaryngologist suggested that breathing difficulties could cause GERD and TMJ. A different head posture related to breathing difficulties could explain the connection, and we’ve talked elsewhere about the link between TMJ and sleep apnea.

If you have GERD, it’s important to consider sleep apnea, anyway. The two conditions are strongly linked. There is also good evidence that sleep apnea treatment can reduce the severity of GERD. The big problem with sleep apnea treatment is that compliance matters and typical low CPAP compliance rates reduce the effectiveness of the treatment. Instead, Columbus sleep dentist Dr. Firouzian offers a CPAP alternative that might provide you with better results. Plus, he’s trained in the treatment of TMJ, so he can design a treatment solution that doesn’t make TMJ worse.

Relief from Sleep Apnea and TMJ in Columbus

Although the exact causal connections among these conditions are not entirely clear, what is clear is that they’re complicated. Because of the complex interplay between GERD, TMJ, and sleep apnea, you might require a team approach to achieve the level of relief you hope for.

Columbus TMJ dentist Dr. Mike Firouzian has extensive experience working with doctors to resolve conditions that require interdisciplinary care. He is happy to work with your doctor or doctors to find the best solution for you. He can also take the lead in assembling an effective care team for you.

Although each patient’s treatment varies, we’re confident we can help you relieve TMJ pain. Please call us at (614) 848-5001 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Firouzian in Columbus, OH.