In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice recites to Caterpillar a comic poem titled “You Are Old, Father William,” which hinges on the strength of an old man’s jaw and contains the following exchange:

“‘You are old,’ said the youth, ‘And your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak—

Pray, how did you manage to do it?’

‘In my youth,’ said his father, ‘I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.’”

Alas, many of us experience diminished jaw strength as we age. This is often due to deterioration of the joints and other components that connect the jaw to the skull and promote optimal jaw function. This, in turn, can lead to the uncomfortable condition known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), and our risk of developing TMJ increases with age.

TMJ risk increases with age

TMJ and Age

TMJ is sometimes a natural byproduct of aging. The tiny, shock-absorbing discs that promote smooth jaw movement may erode or shift out of position. The jaw joints’ cartilage may degenerate or become damaged by arthritis.

These changes can impair jaw function and cause progressive discomfort throughout the jaw and face. Without treatment, symptoms can grow to include chronic headaches, difficulty biting and chewing, earaches or ringing in the ears, and neck and shoulder pain.

TMJ can occur at any age, but the risk increases dramatically between the ages of 20 and 40. In addition to age-related causes, TMJ may also be the result of injury, bite conditions, long-term teeth grinding or other factors.

Age and the Effects of TMJ

The risk for TMJ continues to rise as we grow older, and the condition’s side-effects can worsen unless treated.

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Oral Research examined the prevalence of TMJ among seniors and indicated that TMJ may afflict one in three elderly adults (the study focused on those age 60 and older). The most common physical effect observed in those with TMJ was disc displacement that affected jaw movement. Many participants with TMJ reported limited jaw mobility, sensations of the jaw sticking or locking, and jaw and face pain.

Although previous research suggests that TMJ is more common among women, a study published last month in the Mexican Journal of Odontology observed that among elderly patients with TMJ, severe symptoms were more prevalent among men. That research also found correlations between TMJ symptoms, existing dental problems such as bite conditions and missing teeth, and poor oral health.

Treating TMJ

Unlike the old man in the poem, you don’t have to spend your day arguing to maintain jaw strength; in fact, it probably wouldn’t help. TMJ is believed to affect more than 3 million people, and surely more than a few of them are lawyers.

There are a number of comfortable, effective, TMJ treatments available. Many patients benefit from form-fitting oral appliances designed to hold the jaw in alignment. Others find comfort in occasional TENS therapy, which relaxes the jaw and allows it to settle into a natural resting position.

The neuromuscular dentists at Smile Columbia Dentistry have extensive experience helping patients find lasting relief from TMJ. If you live in Columbia, SC, and you suffer from recurring jaw pain or headaches, please call us today at (803) 781-9090 to schedule your appointment.