Confronting the Confusion

I have identified 12 different categories of contributing factors responsible for the confusion surrounding TMJ problems and facial pain. I believe this confusion prevents most clinicians from developing a firm foundation from which they can make appropriate diagnostic and treatment decisions.

The Twelve Areas of Confusion

 #1  The multi-factorial nature of the disorder

“A patient with orofacial pain can represent a significant challenge to the clinician, leading to repeated and usually unsuccessful interventions.  To further complicate matters, pain is a multidimensional experience involving physical, cognitive and emotional aspects and chronic pain in particular recruits active involvement of these dimensions…The trigeminal nerve innervates anatomically related but functionally diverse organs such as the meninges, the craniofacial vasculature, the eyes, the ears, the teeth, oral soft tissues, muscles and the temporomandibular joint.  In the brainstem, the trigeminal sensory nucleus overlaps with upper cervical dermatomes.  Taken together, these features account for the complex and extensive pain referral patterns that often make clinical diagnosis so difficult.”

--Barry Sessle, MDS, PhD, DSc, FRSC, FCAHS

Professor and Chair, Craniofacial Pain and Sensorimotor Function

University of Toronto

While everything Barry Sessle said is true, the confusion is not just about the multifactorial nature of the condition. The primary reason for this confusion is us as clinicians and researchers.

The 3 Contributing Factor Categories in TMD

Anatomical / Structural


            Internal Derangement

            Degenerative Joint Disease

            Mandibular Posture/Vertical dimension of occlusion 

    Skeletal Growth Deformities


            Ligament Damage / Weakness

            Condylar Position

            Orthopedic Complications

Neuromuscular Disorders


            Cervical Referral

            Myofascial Pain



            Allodynia / Hyperalgesia

            Sympathetically-Maintained Pain

            Tension-Type HA


 Psychological Disorders




            Sensory Perception Disorder

            Central Sensitization



            Poor Lifestyle Choices

            The Unbalanced Life

            Medication Overuse/Abuse

Almost without exception, every TMD patient will have at least two contributing factors responsible for their symptoms, usually from different categories.  The more complex patients will have at least two factors from all 3 categories.

Any clinician who “plays favorites” with one or even some of these factors, and ignores others, will likely mislead himself as well as his patient, resulting in less than optimum treatment results.  For more on this, refer to #8 How Doctors Think (below).

The contributing factors listed are by no means an exhaustive list.  See the FAQ section for a more complete list of diagnoses and contributing factors.  See if you can put each one into one of the 3 categories above.


#2  Clinical Conditions that can masquerade as TMD

            Cervical MFP / Cervicalgia

            Facial Migraine

            Occipital neuralgia

            Odontogenic referral

            ENT problems

                        Glossopharyngeal neuralgia

                        Sphenopalatine ganglion neuralgias

                        Otalgia (sometimes an ear ache is an ear ache)

                        Acoustic Neuroma

                        Vestibular neuropathy

            Neuropathic pain / Neuroma

            Parotid tumors

            Cardiovascular / Carotidynia

            Neoplasia, i.e. TMJ osteochondroma

            Degenerative joint disease


            Ankylosing spondylitis


Obviously, some of these conditions can have serious medical consequences.  It is our obligation to be aware of these conditions and to be able to recognize them if we are evaluating a patient for a potential TMD problem, so an appropriate referral can be made.  This is no different than conducting an oral cancer screening.


#3  The Handicap of a Syndrome

As explained above, given the fact that there can be many different causes of these problems, trying to lump all of them into a single entity is highly misleading.  From the 1930’s to the present, this disorder has been thought of as a syndrome by too many clinicians.  Labeling “TMJ” or “TMD” a syndrome has caused both patients and clinicians to be mislead about the true nature of this condition, as well as impede sound scientific investigation.

To better understand this area of confusion, please refer to the article I wrote titled “The Equivocal Results and Misleading Conclusions in Current Research Addressing TMD / Orofacial Pain” in the appendix.


#4  A lack of training in dental schools

There is currently no mandate for dental schools to include any education in TMD in their curriculum.  Most undergraduate dental or medical students get no more than 2 hours of lecture on this subject.

Therefore, most doctors are provided no foundation for judging which CE programs, courses, or textbooks are appropriate if they want to expand their knowledge.  Today, most dental students are taught how to seek scholarly evidence on the Internet.  Unfortunately, the results they may find regarding TMD are also likely to be misleading (see appendix).


#5  The history of how dentists came to treat these problems (How did we get here?)

The “father” of TMD can be considered to be Dr. James Costen (1895-1962), an ENT physician.  In 1934, he theorized that ear pain, jaw pain, dizziness, with associated h/a are caused by missing posterior teeth or a collapsed bite.  He treated this by fitting blocks of material between the molars.  Costen’s occlusion theory (then called Costen Syndrome) opened the door for dentists to attempt various bite-altering therapies.

The early dentists who attempted to help TMD patients through occlusal therapy include the following:

Nathan A. Shore (1914-1984)  Spent 40 years focusing on “TMJ Syndrome”, NYC

Harold Gelb, NYC, did much to popularize “TMJ” from the 60’s thru the 80’s.  He had several controversial methods, including putting condyles in what he called the “4/7 position” and building a “Gelb splint” which did not follow the principles of occlusion.

In the early 70’s several dentists who had been trained in gnathology began eliminating the more esoteric methods (i.e., tripodized occlusion) and making it more user-friendly for clinicians.  I call it gnathology-lite.  They include:  Peter Dawson, Henry Tanner, Niles Guichet, Peter Neff, Bob Lee, and Terry Tanaka.  They perpetuated the concept of treating TMD through focusing on the occlusion, although Dr. Tanaka has done much to advance our understanding of the TMJ with excellent anatomical research via cadaver studies.

Barney Jankelson, a Seattle dentist, invented a jaw tracking device in the early 70’s.  He incorporated the use of TENS on the jaw muscles, and claimed that this method proved where the jaw “belongs.”  He then advocated rebuilding the occlusion to this “scientific” position, which almost always resulted in opening the bite.  His mantra was “If you can measure it, it’s a fact; if you can’t, it’s an opinion.”  He is considered the father of electrodiagnostics and neuromuscular dentistry.

Dr. George Goodheart, D.C., 1918-2008, Detroit, Michigan.  In 1964 Goodheart developed applied kinesiology—a method of “testing” the body in ways that “diagnosed” any physiologic or medical condition the patient may have.  For dentists, this technique was popularized by George Eversole, who had studied with Goodheart.  Many dentists interested in TMD took weekend courses from Eversole in the 1980’s.  Applied Kinesiology is widely used by chiropractors today.

Bill Farrar (pronounced “fair-ah”), Montgomery, AL, 1924-1985.  Bill Farrar, along with an oral surgeon, Bill McCarty, “discovered” the internal derangement of the jaw joint.  Prior to Farrar, the biomechanical function of the joint was poorly understood.  In 1979, Farrar began lecturing on his discoveries, which transformed our understanding of this condition.  He introduced (along with others) transcranial x-rays to study condylar position.  He introduced disc re-capturing and jaw unlocking techniques.  He used a pull-forward appliance on many of his patients to prevent their jaws from locking again.

To Review:  The underlying philosophy regarding appropriate condylar/mandibular position for TMD patients divides these experts into two basic camps:

Centric Relation/ Ideal occlusion


Restorative occlusionists

Anterior Condylar Repositioning





We will revisit when and where to employ condylar repositioning later on.  Farrar was erroneously interpreted as saying that you had to hold the condyle forward forever.  He never said that.  However, he is the one most responsible for “phase II” dentistry on TMD patients.  More accurately, Farrar (along with Gelb, Jankelson, kinesiology) is used as an excuse by too many dentists to perform phase II dentistry  (orthodontics and/or extensive crownwork) on TMD patients.

The lite gnathologists, who I will now call the occlusionists, especially Dawson and Guichet, were adamant that Farrar was wrong about what caused jaw clicking and the need for provisional condylar repositioning.  They dismissed kinesiology, Gelb, and Jankelson out-of-hand as little more than quacks. 


#6  The claims of so-called experts in the field

By the early 1980’s, it became the battle of the gurus with egos, primarily between the occlusionists and Bill Farrar.  The occlusionists ganged up on Bill Farrar.  He was telling us that attempting to put TMD patients in centric relation was iatrogenic.  He was bringing their jaw forward to recapture their disc, or at least reduce joint capsulitis. The occlusionists regarded this as heresy.  However, Farrar was unflappable at conferences in which he was attacked.  I was privileged to be with him every year until he died in 1985 of emphysema.  He was only on the TMD national stage for 6 years, but he made a huge impact on TMD treatment throughout the world. 

Over 900 dentists traveled to Farrar’s small Montgomery AL office from 16 foreign countries and 46 states.  He taught 79 courses in Montgomery between 1980 and 1985.  He published numerous articles in American and European dental journals over a 25 year period.  He worked in his office until he died.

“My time is short, I will fight and I am not bitter. I have accomplished much of what I wanted to do. It has been exciting…Criticism on a professional level is actually beneficial, because it stimulates us to re-think and re-test our viewpoints and concepts.  We must not accept old ideas not based on scientific fact.”

--Bill Farrar

“Dr. Farrar considered his patients his primary teachers. His clinical findings encouraged him, even drove him, to scientific contributions. He possessed a mind that did not allow intermissions and a heart that reached out to his patients.”  

--Dr. Jack Haden

In his final days, Farrar was heard to say, “Medical science has not yet been able to attach a prognosis of doom on man’s spirit nor to predict the physical strength it can harness. I ask only to contribute to life as long as I live it.”

Bottom Line:  Bill Farrar caused a huge paradigm shift in the world of TMD.  More than any other before or since.  Those who profess expertise in this field are standing on the shoulders of Bill Farrar, whether they know it or not.  For more on Dr. Farrar, see Jack Haden’s guest editorial in the Journal of Craniomandibular Practice, Oct, 2008, found here:  FarrarHadenCranioArticle.pdf

For those of us who grew up in the world of gnathological occlusion, we could see the writing on the wall.  We realized within a year of Farrar’s 1979 revelations that the days of manipulating patients into centric relation, making splints in that position and subsequently equilibrating them into this position was not the answer for TMD patients.  If the disc is dislocated, as it is in the majority of TMD patients, there is no such thing as “centric relation.”  The most you can hope to accomplish is identify an “adapted centric position” (Dawson’s term).

Also, by the late 1970’s we had some excellent clinicians who were leading the way in looking at more than just occlusion in evaluating and treating these patients.  They include:

Weldon Bell,  Oral Surgeon, Texas

Parker Mahan, U of Florida, Gainsville

Bernie Williams and Jack Haden of Kansas City -- The best students of Farrar

Jeff Okeson,  UK/Lexington

In addition, some very good basic science, which explained the physiology and neurochemistry of TMD, started coming out of universities, from individuals such as:

Ron Dubner, U of Maryland

Barry Sessle, U of Toronto


Electrodiagnostics – Re-Defining Normal

Remember Barnie Jankelson’s mantra:  “If you can measure it, it’s a fact; if you can’t measure it, it’s an opinion.”   Sounds impressive, but what does it mean? 

Electronic devices allow you to measure a lot of things.  The question is whether the results of electronic testing are valid or useful in a clinical setting.  In TMD, these devices include:

Jaw Tracking devices

Surface EMG muscle testing

The use of TENS to establish the optimum rest position of masticatory muscles

Doppler Ultrasound / Sonography

Joint vibration analysis

Occlusion scanners


Diagnostic imaging

 A dose of statistics:  Sensitivity and  Specificity

In order to determine if these devices are reliable indicators of a patient having a certain problem, we have to make sure they find the problem in patients, without also finding the problem in non-patients.

Sensitivity:  The proportion of actual positives that are correctly identified as such.

Specificity:  The proportion of those proven to be normal which are correctly identified.

The study:  Establish 100 patients who are verified through a gold-standard exam to have a TMD condition, and also 100 patients who are proven to have no evidence of no TMD condition.  Then blind the device operator as to which patients are in which group.  Test all 200 patients with the same device to be studied, using the same operator and methods.

Ideal result:


 Gold-std Exam                   Test Pos                  Test Negative                                              



Has Disorder

(Proven Positives)












(Control group)

(Proven Negatives)












To be considered a valid testing device, the sensitivity and specificity must be at least 80%.  In the example above, both sensitivity and specificity are 95%.


Typical results for electrodiagnostic devices, excluding diagnostic imaging:


 Gold-std Exam                   Test Pos                  Test Negative                                  



Has Disorder

(Proven Positives)












(Control group)

(Proven Negatives)











In this situation, electronic devices have a high sensitivity of 90% (good), but a specificity of just 20%, resulting in way too many false positives.

There are currently no electrodiagnostic devices which have been independently proven to be valid, because of the propensity for the devices to provide false positive results.  This convinces the clinician and the patient that there is a problem requiring treatment, which may be erroneous, and also opens the door for these devices to be misused, because these devices can be used to “sell” unnecessary treatment to normal patients.

The prime example is using TENS and jaw tracking, possibly in conjunction with surface EMG testing, to establish the ideal rest position of the mandible, for the purpose of providing maximum relaxation of the masticatory muscles—a practice commonly known as Neuromuscular Dentistry.  Most patients (and normal asymptomatic individuals) undergoing this testing will be shown to be “over-closed” and/or over-retruded, and therefore in need of bite-opening (a good thing if you want to do a lot of dentistry).

Thus, unethical or mis-informed clinicians can easily exploit such devices in order to sell extensive (and expensive) dentistry that the patient may not need.

Ref:  Orofacial Pain: Guidelines for Assessment, Diagnosis, and Mgt, 4th Ed, pp36-40

In summary, the problem with electrodiagnostic devices is not that they are inherently inaccurate.  They are actually quite accurate in what they measure.  They often make very useful research tools.  The problem is in how they are inappropriately applied in clinical dentistry.

Redefining Normal

Specifically, the problem lies in making false assumptions about what normal parameters are.  These false assumptions include the following:

  • The vertical dimension of occlusion should be 1 to 1.5 mm from the position of maximum jaw relaxation.
    • Using the principles of neuromuscular dentistry, the average closure from the “relaxed” position to tooth occlusion is 8 mm.  This means that the average patient (or normal person) will be found to be “over-closed” 6-7 mm.
  • Using a TENS unit is the optimum way to find the maximum jaw relaxation position.
    • TENS was abandoned over 20 years ago by physical therapists as being ineffective.  Well-controlled research has also shown this technique to lack efficacy.  Those advocating TENS as part of neuromuscular dentistry claim it is somehow “special” because it is low frequency.  This claim appears to lack foundation.
  • Normal TMJ’s have no joint sounds
    • If 1/3 of the general population has a displaced disc, which has been established by numerous studies.  Therefore, “normal” would have to include joint sounds.  Most people do not think much of popping in their knees or ankles, but somehow dentists have made them afraid of the popping in their jaw.
  • Surface EMG only measures electrical activity in the muscles it is intended to measure. 
  • Normal condylar position is concentric or forward from centric
  • Normal body surface temperature should be…
  • A person with normal occlusion has no inclined-plane contacts

Likewise, diagnostic imaging can be mis-used. For example, if the clinician assumes that the condyle must be concentric in the fossae in the closed-mouth position, they will “diagnose” many patients as having a TMJ problem.  However, almost half of certified normal patients have over-retruded condyles.  Such a clinician may recommend to the patient that their condyles have to be repositioned forward.  This creates a posterior open bite, requiring orthodontics or restorative dentistry to correct.  See Chapter 2 (Where Do We Go From Here) for the long-term sequella to mandibular repositioning.


#7  The Philosophical Turf Battles Among TMD Groups.

There are three main groups representing TMD (there are dozens of fringe groups as well).  All are in the US, but all have international representation. 

American Equilibration Society (AES)

Organized in 1956, initially focused on occlusion and gnathological principles.  Incorporated TMJ disorders by the 1960’s. It is the largest of the TMD organizations.  It is the “big tent”, in that it invites all disciplines and philosophies of TMD and occlusion.  Equilibration as a procedure has not been emphasized in meetings for over 20 years.  The organization name refers to the harmonious equilibrium between the musculoskeltal system and the occlusion.

American Academy of Orofacial Pain (AAOP)

First organization focused solely on TMD/Orofacial pain.  Started in 1976, by strange bedfellows:  Harold Gelb and the academics.  Originally named American Academy of Craniomandibular Orthopedics. Current name adopted in 1992.  Organization was dominated by the academics soon after it was organized, and still is. Organized the American Board of Orofacial Pain in 1995.  Published the Guidelines for Assessment, Diagnosis, and Management in 1994. Publishes the Journal of Orofacial Pain.  Has the ear of the ADA and JADA.

Emphasizes or supports:

The psychological component of TMD, along with neurology and pharmacology. 

Evidence-based dentistry. 

The use of reversible treatment modalities

De-emphasizes or opposes:

The use of electrodiagnostics. 

Phase II dentistry for TMD patients.

The orthopedic and structural components of TMD.


American Academy of Craniofacial Pain (AACP)

Organized in 1985.  Original name:  American Academy of Head, Neck, Facial Pain and TMJ Disorders.

Emphasizes or supports:

The orthopedic and structural components of TMD. 

An empirical/anecdotal approach to management of these disorders. 

The use of electrodiagnostics. 

Phase II dentistry for TMD patients.

De-emphasizes or opposes:

Evidence-based dentistry. 

Psychological and pharmacological treatment modalities. 


All three organizations support the use of splints, although they use them for different purposes and have different beliefs about the mechanism of how a splint works.


Conferences with a Hidden Agenda

1988: ADA Conference on Diagnostic and Treatment Modalities for TMD, Chicago. 

Over 600 dentists in attendance.  The day before the meeting, members of the AACP obtained a court-restraining order, preventing even the mention of any electrodiagnostic device during the conference.  AACP had their attorneys in the conference room, monitoring all proceedings.  As a result, it was conservatively estimated that several million dollars were wasted in this meeting, given the cost of travel, lodging, and lost income for the participants.

In addition, the manufacturers of the electrodiagnostic equipment had petitioned the ADA to obtain the ADA Seal of Approval.  When this was denied, they sued (or threatened to sue) the ADA.  Around 1990, the ADA responded by abandoning it’s Seal of Approval program.  These devices have since been cleared by the FDA, but only for safety; not efficacy or validity.

1996:  National Institute of Health TMD Conf, Bethesda, MD. 

Over 800 in attendance, including the lay public.

Numerous presenters spoke on various diagnostic and treatment modalities.  A panel of “experts”, none of whom had ever treated a TMD patient, and most of whom were not dentists, listened to the presenters.  The panel rendered an opinion regarding the current status of research and treatment options for these disorders, supposedly based on the information presented at the meeting.  It was later discovered that the opinion of this panel, which was released to the press at the end of the conference, was written before the conference ever started.  The conclusions of the panel:  “Nothing is known about TMD.”  According to the panel, we don’t even know how to correctly define it, much less how to appropriately treat it.  The one clear conclusion of the conference was that occlusion plays no role in TMD, and therefore occlusal treatment is not warranted.  This conference opinion was written by members of the AAOP (the academics at university-based TMD programs).

A U.S. Congressman who is a dentist was in attendance.  He stated that “A result like this is always about one of two things:  power or money.  Follow the money.”

Headline in most U.S. newspapers following this conference:  “Treatment for jaw disorder unproven.  About $1 billion a year is spent on treatment of TMD patients, yet most treatment is not based on proven science.”

This conference provided all the cover insurance companies needed to avoid paying claims for TMD, because it was labeled “experimental”.  This meeting did more to prevent patients from having access to care than any other event before or since. 

It also gave dental schools all the cover they needed to deny class time in the undergraduate curriculum for this subject.

Why did this happen?  Academics make their money through research grants.  In order to obtain a grant, you have to prove that 1) there is a large percent of the general population with the condition, and 2) there is not enough research to demonstrate how to adequately diagnose or treat it. 

1998: AAOP (and later AACP) petition the ADA regarding recognized specialty status for TMD.

Why?  Because it is difficult to attract qualified grad students into the (approximately) 10 university-based TMD programs, if the graduates do not have an ADA-recognized certificate at the end of their training.  AAOP and AACP re-submitted applications each year (on alternating years) for approximately 6 years before giving up.

Why was specialty recognition not granted by the ADA?  Because there is obviously no consensus among the various groups regarding how to treat these patients. 

1998: The TMD Alliance was formed.  It consisted of delegates from approximately 10 organizations having an interest in TMD.  The express purpose of this organization was to thwart attempts by AAOP and AACP to obtain specialty status with the ADA.  This was done out of fear that if one of the groups were successful, that organization would be able to dictate the “accepted” methods of diagnosis and treatment.  They were also afraid that existing practitioners could not be “grandfathered” in as specialists; and that only patients seeing the recognized specialists could obtain insurance benefits.  I was a delegate to this organization for several years, but recommended that both organizations I represented withdraw their membership from this group.

#8  How Doctors Think

Jerome Groopman, M.D.  Harvard graduate, hematologist.  Chief of experimental medicine, Boston’s Beth Israel Medical Ctr.  Wrote How Doctors Think, 2007.  See Doctor Resources / Continuing Education for information about how to obtain this book.

“We carve out order by leaving the disorderly parts out.”  --William James, M.D.

“If you listen to the patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.”  --William Osler

“In one study of misdiagnosis that caused serious harm to patients, 80% could be accounted for by a cascade of cognitive errors, such as putting the patient into a narrow frame and ignoring information that contradicted a fixed notion.”

“Another study of 100 incorrect diagnoses found that inadequate knowledge was the reason for error in only 4% of instances.  The doctors didn’t stumble because of their ignorance of the clinical facts; rather, they missed diagnoses because they fell into cognitive traps.”

The cognitive traps:

Attribution errors

Anchoring errors

Commission errors

Outcome bias

Deductive logic errors

Availability errors

Overuse of stereotypes

Heuristic errors

“Misdiagnosis is a window into the medical mind.  It reveals why doctors fail to question their assumptions, why their thinking is sometimes closed or skewed, why they overlook the gaps in their knowledge.”

“Intellect, intuition, careful attention to detail, active listening, and psychological insight all coalesce for the competent clinician.”

--Dr. Jerold Groopman

This book is a must-read for any clinician treating TMD patients.  It is well written.  Your spouse will love to read it too, especially if they enjoy watching “House” on TV.

The bottom line:  Our preconceptions regarding the typical TMD patient prevents us from taking the time to thoroughly investigate the one in our chair today.  The one in your chair is unlike all the others.  Each person is unique, in so many ways.  What worked for your last TMD patient will probably not work for this one.

When it comes to treating TMD patients, there is no substitute for being a thinking dentist.  Don’t hesitate to reschedule them to a day when you know you will have more time in your schedule.  They deserve it.

#9  Evidence-Based Dentistry

Because of the lack of consensus in the TMD field, one would think that the scientific method, available to us by adapting evidence-based medicine principles, would be welcomed.  The reality is that most TMD clinicians do not welcome this scientific approach.  There are probably many reasons for this.  Many of those reasons are included in this document.  However, one of the bigger fears among practitioners is that EBD will force them to practice in a way that is different from the way they KNOW is best.  Those treating these problems have a long tradition of relying on the less-than-scientific training they received.  It is not unlike the story of the man who asked his wife why she cuts the ends off a ham before putting it in the oven.

As Bill Farrar so eloquently stated, “We must not accept old ideas not based on scientific fact.”

I have spent more than 6 years focused on the principles of Evidence-based dentistry, particularly in how it applies in the TMD arena.  I am on an international scientific investigation committee, conducting a systematic review of the literature, in order to eventually write guidelines for TMD treatment (note:  guidelines are not mandates).  I can tell you that, while EBD promises to one day lead us out of the wilderness of confusion we are in, it is currently not ready for prime time, at least not in the field of TMD (apologies for the mixed metaphors).

Briefly, EBD is based on looking at the best available evidence, and combining/pooling similar trials on the same subject, in order to elicit adequate valid evidence to produce a guideline regarding how to manage a component of TMD.  As the graphic below illustrates, the poorest quality (but greatest quantity) of evidence is opinions expressed by experts in the field.  Unfortunately, expert opinion is the primary evidence most of us in the field have had to rely on.  However, it is the opinion of experts that have left us with such diverse diagnostic and treatment modalities, with the resulting confusion for both clinician and patient alike.  Expert opinion is part of the problem, not part of the solution.


Sound science is based on well-controlled, randomized trials.  Unfortunately, there is a dearth of true randomized controlled trials (RCT’s) available to us for review in the TMD field.  There are many trials that claim to be randomized and controlled, but few actually are.  There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the multi-factorial nature of the condition (it is very difficult to control all the variables affecting the outcome during the course of the trial).  The bottom line is that analyzing the available data on TMD patients almost always produces equivocal results for any particular treatment modality, including splint therapy.  Please refer to appendix regarding the reasons for these equivocal EBD results.

Because of the equivocal results, some academics declare that there is no evidence that any TMD therapy is efficacious.  This includes splint therapy, which these same academics routinely use on patients. However, a lack of evidence does not mean that a treatment intervention lacks efficacy.  More often than not, it means that the underlying trials were poorly designed and/or poorly conducted.


#10  The Ethical Slide:  Using TMD as a sales pitch to sell dentistry

Many of you will recall that in 1997 an article was published in the Reader’s Digest by Mr. William Ecenbarger.  He is an investigative journalist, who had himself examined by a panel of respected dentists.  One of these dentists was John Dodes, a member of the National Council Against Health Fraud.  The panel agreed Mr. Ecenbarger needed a crown on # 30 and possibly a crown on #18.  That’s all.

He then traveled to the offices of 50 dentists in 28 states and D.C.  Some dentists told him that he needed no treatment (15 of the 50 missed #30 entirely), and others informed him that he needed a $30,000 full mouth rehab. 

While this was not a scientific study, and many dentists criticized the article, I think we ignore it as a profession at our own peril. 

If a TMD patient were similarly “prepped” and had the wherewithal to conduct this kind of experiment, I have no doubt that they would have a similar experience with dentists, except today the upper end would be closer to $60,000, especially if this “patient” consulted Dr. Google for a “referral” to a TMD expert.

It is easy to exploit TMD patients, because they are desperate to find an answer to their pain and dysfunction.

The Cosmetic-TMJ Dentist

As we all know, dentistry has been pursuing elective cosmetic procedures for more than 20 years.  Some dentists have sought out special training at “cosmetic centers” in order to get a leg up on the competition.

The former “director of occlusion” at one of these centers spoke at an AAOP conference a number of years ago.  I was shocked at what he said.  Specifically, he candidly informed us that when patients came to their center, he examined them and then referred them across town to a chiropractor.  Using applied kinesiology (muscle testing, usually of the deltoid muscle) and pieces of paper between the patient’s molars, the chiropractor determined the “proper” vertical dimension of occlusion for the patient.  Using this “prescription” from the chiropractor, the director of occlusion then informed the patient that all their teeth needed to be restored in order to treat their over-closed bite, (and cure their TMJ problem, if they had one).

However, this gentleman was the former director of occlusion because the cosmetic dental centers found something even better than kinesiology to “diagnose” the occlusion:  Neuromuscular Dentistry, i.e., electrodiagnostic jaw tracking with EMG muscle testing.

To quote from some Cosmetic-TMJ dentists’ web sites:

“Neuromuscular dentistry is used to determine the ideal position for your jaw by focusing on all three dimensions. By discovering the perfect resting position for your jaw and adjusting your jaw to this position, neuromuscular dentistry is able to relieve you of your discomfort.”

“Neuromuscular dentistry will help your facial and jaw muscles find their optimal position. Through this, the occlusion or bite of the jaw is improved in order to eliminate the pain you are suffering.”

It was marriage made in heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective).  Now the cosmetic-TMJ dentist has a more “scientific” method for convincing the patient their bite is over-closed and/or over-retruded (and proof of why they have “TMJ”).  The added bonus is that dentists who “graduate” from these cosmetic centers are not only going to be experts in cosmetics, they will also be experts in occlusion and “TMJ.”   As John Stossell would say, “Give me a break!”

Five years ago, “UDA Action” reprinted an article by Gordon Christensen titled “I Have Had Enough.”  In this article, he states:

“Where has the professionalism of my profession gone?  I have seen a major degeneration in the ethics of the dental profession over the past several years.”

“Oral over-treatment in the name of esthetic dentistry without total informed consent of patients, primarily for the dentist’s financial gain, is nothing less than overt dishonesty in its worst form.  You cannot put tooth structure back after it has been removed...  Financial income to the practitioner should be related to the needs and decisions of the informed patient, not the needs of the practice.”

A copy of Gordon’s article is available from the UDA office, via fax.

Besides the cosmetic dentist’s newfound interest in TMD, there are other dental “experts” making highly questionable statements to patients.  We have heard these recently, as reported by patients:

“We will start treating your TMJ by taking out all of your silver fillings.”

“Since my bite guard didn’t help you, that means I will have to do braces on you next.”

“I can tell you have TMJ without examining you, because your eyes are bulging out.”

“The doctor doesn’t need to examine you in order for us to know you have TMJ.  We can tell from this form you filled out.  That will be $4,000 to get started.”

“Your orthodontist caused your jaw symptoms because he doesn’t understand TMJ.  Now I will have to re-do your orthodontic treatment and then I will have to crown most of your teeth.”

(From a cosmetic dentist who just completed a patient’s full-mouth rehab):  “Well, if your bite is still off you are going to have to get braces next.”

“You can only open 42mm.  This proves you’ve got TMJ.”  (Normal jaw opening is 40mm or more).

“You have had some teeth root-canal’d.  Root canal treatment causes systemic health problems.  We now have to extract these teeth and place implants”

There are marketing campaigns, masquerading as continuing education, which promise a new income source through the field of TMD.  They employ slick dentist-salesmen pretending to be TMD experts, who promise to make you one of the top dentists in America if you simply buy their line of products, treatment methods, and sales tactics. 

It is my belief that the vast majority of dentists are honest, ethical, and possess great integrity.  But it only takes a handful of dentists to make the rest of us look bad.  We all get painted with the same brush, especially in the eyes of the insurance industry.  Utah is the worst state in the nation for insurance coverage on TMD.  It is my belief, after serving for many years as an insurance consultant on TMD cases, that we can blame the few “bad apples” in our midst for the insurance industry’s skeptical and jaded opinion of TMD treatment.


#11  The Internet

The blind leading the blind

            A greater quantity of information doesn’t lead to greater quality

            Too often, it is a cornucopia of mis-information and biased advice

Unfortunately, the Internet has resulted in a quantum leap in the “noise” surrounding these disorders, perpetuating the confusion and the abuse of these patients.

The Internet has allowed clinicians to make false and misleading advertising claims that would have never been tolerated a few years ago by their profession or by state regulators.

While the Internet helps us in many ways, advancing sound TMD knowledge is generally not one of them.


#12  The Belief Window

These concepts originated in the book, Gaining Control, by Robert Bennett.  The Belief Window was also popularized in a lecture series and video tape with the same title, by Hyrum Smith.  A man named Kurt Hanks claims to be the originator of these concepts.

Key Concepts of the Belief Window:

Hanging out in front of every person is a large window through which he or she sees the world. It is invisible to all but the trained eye. And written on each window (by its owner) are a series of explanations, guides or principles, which direct the owner’s behavior.

  • A proclamation of belief does not show the governing principles that dominate a person’s life; their actions do.
  • Beliefs can become principles, which direct our thoughts and our behavior.
  • “My way is the right way and I see things absolutely correctly.”
  •   A belief window limits what we see or don’t see, and therefore what we do or don’t do.
  •   Our individual needs provide the power, and the principles written on our window direct that power.
  •   We are constantly scanning our environment through the window for ways to satisfy our needs.
  •   The things written on the glass include our prejudices.
  •   We cannot behave inconsistently with our belief window; it controls our decisions.
  •   We consider what is written on our glass to be absolutely true, with no possible alternative.

This topic is different than #8 How Doctors Think.  It addresses the group dynamics that help explain the unwillingness of the various camps in the TMD field to even attempt to reach common ground and consensus, based on the “Not Invented Here” mentality of these groups.




The twelve conditions above help explain the reasons for the confusion surrounding TMD.  We will be able to effectively understand the true nature of the TMD patient only if we are mindful of these confounding factors, and their potential to mislead us.  Trying to treat every patient complaining of jaw pain and dysfunction with just one diagnosis and one treatment is likely to be as successful as winning at the slot machine with every pull of the handle.  Hopefully, we can move past the paradigm of “If all you have is a hammer, then all you see is nails.”

Understanding and acknowledging these confusing factors may appear to make TMD more challenging to the clinician.  However, I submit it can actually be quite freeing.  Dentists are the doctors of the masticatory system.  MD’s want nothing to do with these disorders.  However, dentists can only take their rightful place as the doctors of the masticatory system if they pay the price in terms of a sound scientific foundation.  Otherwise, we are relegated to being “chiro-dontists”, relying on anecdotal/empirical testimonials and opinions regarding how to diagnose and treat these patients.

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