Biological Joint Could End TMJD Woes

woman touching face looking in mirror

For the more than 10 million Americans suffering from the often-debilitating condition known as temporomandibular joint disorder, relief can’t come fast enough.

Temporomandibular joint disorder (also known as TMJ disorder, TMJD or simply TMJ) is a condition that occurs when the jaw’s temporomandibular joint becomes misaligned with the rest of the jaw. This can occur due to genetics or injury but has the same painful symptoms no matter the cause. People with TMJ disorder often report a popping or clicking sound when opening or closing their jaw, in addition to jaw pain and stiffness; difficulty opening and closing their mouth; head, neck, and backaches; and even tinnitus (ringing in the ears). Temporomandibular joint disorder affects more women than men. Among those women, most are in their childbearing years.

While some TMJD sufferers can find relief with custom orthotics, others have had more enduring success with surgical procedures such as arthrocentesis, arthroscopy, or joint-replacement surgery. For those patients, surgery is a last resort – a final attempt at finding relief that is only an option after all other options have failed.

But a new procedure could someday help patients suffering from temporomandibular joint disorder, and it’s taking a new approach to healing.

Conducted at the University of California Irvine and the University of Texas School of Dentistry at Houston, a new study has successfully healed the temporomandibular joint of a pig with the biologically compatible rib tissue of another animal. The surgery is the first of its kind to be used on the temporomandibular joint, and researchers are optimistic they can replicate the results in humans.

Dr. Randy Sanovich is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Dallas, Texas. He says the reason the tissue transplant was so successful was likely due to the biological material used in the procedure.

“When you use biologically compatible material, it’s not only more likely to be accepted by the body, but if it’s rejected by the body it is simply reabsorbed with no negative side effects,” Sanovich says.

Temporomandibular joint surgery of this kind has had issues in the past when previous iterations of the procedure used a Teflon prosthetic that degraded over time. Because the Teflon was not biological, it could not be absorbed by the body, and fragments of Teflon found their way into the brains of many of the patients who received the implants. Though Teflon is no longer used for TMJ joint replacement, other prosthetics are currently utilized for this purpose and, according to Sanovich, are totally safe. Still, as safe and effective as joint replacement is, a biological replacement would no doubt be a welcome option for some patients.

“If this procedure can someday be replicated in human subjects, it could be the end of prosthetic joint surgery, not just for the temporomandibular joint, but for many other joints in the body too. It will be interesting to see what transpires with this in the coming years.”

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