Athletes of many popular sports are at risk of specific injuries, including injuries of the head, neck, and jaw. As they are closely related, trauma to one often impacts the others. Trauma to any of these parts can result in facial injury, face pain, headaches, concussions, and, commonly, TMJ disorder.
Sports-related injuries to the head, neck, or jaw often result in temporomandibular joint disorder or TMD.
The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) sit in front of each ear and act as the sliding hinge that connects the jaw to the temporal bones of the skull. The TMJ is a vital joint as it affects the ability to eat, breathe, speak, and hold good posture. Damage to the TMJ can occur from many causes, such as teeth grinding, a misaligned bite, and arthritis, but sports-related TMD often occurs from impact-caused trauma to the head, neck, or jaw.
A TMD diagnosis is used to refer to a group of orofacial disorders related to the TMJ, jaw muscles, and facial nerves. TMD symptoms include face pain, headaches, decreased or heightened sensitivity to sound, breathing issues, neck and upper back pains, the inability to chew or speak comfortably, as well as psychological concerns such as increased depression, anxiety, and fear.
Because most sports-related injuries are predictable, prevention is an athlete’s first line of defense against TMD and TMJ trauma. The most immediate form of protection against TMD is the mouthguard.
Mouthguards are designed to fit over the teeth and prevent the upper and lower teeth from contact, protecting the athlete from damage due to clenching or teeth grinding during sports and training. Mouthguards also work to soften impact blows and minimize damage to the jaw, teeth, and TMJ.
Mouthguards can be categorized into three groups: extraoral, intraoral, and combined. Extraoral mouthguards are attached to the helmet or head in the form of a wire cage, while intraoral mouthguards rest within dental arches. Combined mouthguards are designed to apply extraoral protection for soft facial tissues and intraoral protection of the teeth.
The most commonly used type of mouthguard among the three is the intraoral mouthguard, which features three classifications: stock, mouth-formed, and custom-made. Stock mouthguards are available commercially as the least effective yet most widely used type. Mouth-formed mouthguards, or boil-and-bite, are more cost-effective than custom-made mouthguards, but their quality decreases over time. Custom-made mouthguards are fitted to each dental arch and offer more impact absorption and distribution of force.
In many cases, TMD can resolve itself without help from a medical professional with proper at-home care. Medical professionals suggest that during recovery, a diet of soft foods can be helpful. Such foods can include mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, smoothies, yogurt, and fish. Eating foods that don’t require much chewing, as well as food cut into small pieces for minimal chewing, allows the jaw to rest and heal. Ice packs, exercise, and moist heat also help alleviate TMD symptoms by relaxing tight muscles. Individual at-home treatments, such as four-week care plan Speed2Treat®, include such equipment to treat pain and inflammation of head and neck joints and ligaments.
However, it’s always encouraged to have any case of TMD or head, neck, or jaw injury checked by medical professionals. FaceMyPain is a listing service for providers who treat headaches, facial pain, TMJ disorders. Providers include pain specialists, dentists, as well as professionals practiced in sports medicine.