Whiplash commonly refers to neck sprain or neck strain that occurs as a result of neck jolts or snaps after an accident or an injury. Sudden jerking of the head mainly causes whiplash in a backward or forward direction.
Usually, whiplash damages the intervertebral joints and discs in addition to cervical muscles, ligaments, and nerve roots. But recent studies have revealed that trauma from whiplash can lead to the development of delayed TMJ symptoms.
Although the source of TMJ pain is still unknown, research studies speculate that the whiplash motion causes the jaw to open forcefully, which produces unnecessary stain on the TMJ.
A Sweden study looked upon the short term and long term TMJ pain and dysfunctions in around 59 patients. All these patients were examined directly after a rear-end car collision followed by a re-evaluation of symptoms after one year. (1)
This study revealed that the incidence of new temporomandibular joint pain and dysfunction symptoms were five times higher in the injured individuals as compared to healthy control subjects.
The study also showed that females were significantly affected with increased frequency of TMJ pain. Additionally, 20% of all the subjects reported TMJ pain and dysfunction as their primary complaint after one year of follow up.
Correlation between whiplash and jaw pain
The temporomandibular joint is one of the most complex joints in the body. It mainly consists of two ends located on each side of the head. The temporomandibular joint functions in moving the lower jaw in different directions within a limited range of motion.
A combination of gliding and rotating motions are used to move the lower jaw while chewing or speaking. All these movements of the jaw are supported by TMJ muscles, ligaments, discs, and underlying bones. (2)
Physiotherapists have established that the correlation between a whiplash and TMJ pain is mainly due to myofascial problems related to cervical injury during an accident.
TMJ, occlusion, and cervical spine come in close proximity and are functionally interrelated. Whiplash causes hyperflexion or hyperextension of the neck leading to a cervical spine injury. Malposition of the cervical disc and spine causes dysfunctioning of the TMJ and eventually occlusion.
This theory was supported by a clinical study which was done on 300 patients who suffered a whiplash injury associated with TMJ pain. Each had no prior history of TMJ dysfunction. After a thorough physical examination, the researchers found the following results – (3)
- The incidence of TMJ pain after a whiplash injury was 96.7%.
- 87% of the patients were females. This report supported the study which stated women experience TMJ pain more than males.
The study concluded by confirming that TMJ dysfunction and pain was caused primarily by myofascial triggers points and muscle spasms, which initiated from a cervical spine injury.
Although this evidence correlates whiplash injury with TMJ pain, there are ongoing studies that are examining the psychological and psychosocial aspects to strengthen this correlation. Moreover, clinicians are encouraged to examine both the cervical spine area, along with the TMJ in whiplash injury cases to enhance the link between the two.