Can Whiplash Cause TMJ Pain?

Whiplash injury symptoms classically involve the neck, but can whiplash cause TMJ pain? Because the connection between whiplash and TMJ disorders was considered controversial in the past, TMJ pain is among the most common untreated whiplash symptoms. Now there is mounting evidence of a strong association between whiplash and TMJ disorders, with some studies showing that close to 25% of people with whiplash injuries have coincident TMJ pain. If you have had a whiplash injury and are having jaw pain, here’s what you need to know.

Whiplash Injury Symptoms

What is whiplash? A whiplash injury occurs when there is sudden hyperextension and hyperflexion of the neck. Another name for whiplash is neck sprain or neck strain. Whiplash injuries occur most frequently in car accidents, but they can also occur in sports injuries, assaults, and falls.

When people think about whiplash injury symptoms, the immediate association is neck pain. Indeed, neck pain, neck stiffness, and headache are considered the cardinal symptoms of whiplash injury. What’s less known is that many people who have whiplash injuries also experience jaw pain. Commonly reported TMJ related symptoms in whiplash include:

  • Jaw tenderness
  • Tension headache
  • Jaw fatigue with eating
  • Pain with eating and yawning
  • Stiffness or numbness in the jaw-face region
  • TMJ clicking or popping sounds

These symptoms are seen in many other traumatic injuries that result in jaw and muscle sprain/strain (called JAMSS in the medical literature).

How Can Whiplash Cause TMJ Pain?

How can whiplash cause TMJ pain if there is no direct jaw trauma? It is thought that the sudden change in the position of the jaw causes elongation of the jaw ligaments, disc displacement, and trauma to the jaw muscles. Abnormalities in these structures have been confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies of people with chronic TMJ pain after whiplash.

Next, there is a growing appreciation of the close functional relationship between the neck and the jaw. “There is increasing evidence of a tight coupling between the sensory and motor systems of the jaw and neck region. When the neck is injured in a whiplash injury, it causes pain and functional impairments in the jaw. If not treated promptly, these symptoms act as a risk factor for developing a chronic TMJ pain disorder”, explains Bradley Eli, DMD, MS, an orofacial pain specialist.

This brings up the issue of delayed whiplash symptoms. Both whiplash and TMJ disorders share a high rate of transition to chronic symptoms. An astonishing 50% of patients who experience whiplash injuries develop long-term disability. A similar phenomenon occurs with jaw sprain and strain injuries. This transition to chronic symptoms occurs because of a process called “pain amplification”, where the central nervous system pain pathways amplify normal sensory input, registering it as painful.

TMJ Pain Relief After Whiplash Injury

Because of the high rate of transition to chronic TMJ disorders, it is critical to address jaw pain from whiplash injury as soon as possible. If there is severe neck spasm and stiffness associated with the injury, a short course of muscle relaxants or analgesics may be appropriate. However, if symptoms are mild, a natural and multimodal treatment approach is optimal for jaw healing. TMJ self-care interventions include:

  • Oral Splint Therapy: Just like a neck brace used after whiplash injuries, an intraoral appliance like the QuickSplint® acts to support the jaw muscles and prevent muscle hyperactivity and spasm.
  • Physical TherapyGentle jaw exercises will help increase the jaw range of motion and promote early recovery.
  • Hot/Cold Therapy: Alternating heat and cold packs decrease pain and help relax the muscles, facilitating motion.

The QuickSplint®, a jaw wrap with hot/cold packs, physical therapy exercises, and self-guided pain management videos are all included as part of the Speed2Treat® Home Healing Kit. Don’t let your jaw pain from a whiplash injury turn into chronic pain. Start your journey to jaw pain relief with the Home Healing Kit today!

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