If you suffer from chronic back pain but cannot determine the reason, the underlying cause could be surprising: a dental issue.
This unexpected connection is an example of referred pain, or pain in an area of the body other than where it originates. Studies have shown that referred pain is due to the way the body’s nerve fibers converge on and send signals up and down the spinal column. These signals make it so that dysfunction or pain towards the top of the spinal column, such as a toothache, can influence the structures below, such as the upper and low back, and vice versa.
Referred pain can also result from the ways in which our muscles interact with and support each other. A common example is the link between the jaw disorder, TMJ or temporomandibular joint disorder, and chronic back pain. TMJ occurs when the hinge that connects the jawbone to the skull dysfunctions, causing pain in the jaw joint and in the muscles that control jaw movement.
Patients with TMJ often complain of backaches, because when the jaw is out of alignment, it causes the neighboring muscles to exert extra effort. The muscles in the neck, shoulders and back work to correct the misalignment, and when these muscles tire, the surrounding areas can experience chronic pain.
The dental-back pain connection works both ways, as poor posture can also affect the function of the jaw joints and cause TMJ. When the body is properly aligned, the head balances over the shoulders over the hips, which keeps the spine in alignment. When the head moves forward in front of the shoulder joint, such as when staring at a computer screen, the jaw, neck and shoulder muscles must work overtime to hold the head upright. The jaw then loses its ability to move smoothly and freely, often causing pain, locking, stiffness, and over time TMJ.
The relationship between mouth and back pain is an important reminder that where pain is felt is often not where the problem lies. It is important to identify the underlying roots of chronic pain, as this helps make quicker and more effective diagnoses and pain management strategies.
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