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Can TMJ Cause Hearing Loss?

May 10, 2024
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

Soundly Staff
Reviewed by
Soundly Staff
Soundly Staff

Soundly conducts in-depth research to guide prospective hearing aid wearers. Our work is funded through reader support. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.

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Key Takeaways:

  • TMJ can cause symptoms such as jaw pain, facial discomfort, headaches, tinnitus, and other symptoms, including muffled hearing.
  • Patients with TMJ may experience muffled hearing and ear fullness due to Eustachian tube dysfunction, which can cause conductive hearing loss.
  • After proper diagnosis, conductive hearing loss related to TMJ may involve interventions such as oral appliances, physical therapy, or holistic approaches.

Throughout my work as an audiologist, I've encountered numerous patients grappling with a range of ear conditions, seeking solace and solutions. Among these conditions, the connection between TMJ (temporomandibular joint) disorder and hearing loss stands out as both intriguing and complex. In practice, I've seen firsthand the confusion and frustration it can cause. As someone deeply committed to not only treating but also educating my patients, I find it important to shed light on all aspects of hearing health. In this article, we'll give you everything you need to know when it comes to TMJ and hearing loss.

What is TMJ disorder?

First, let's get the lay of the land when it comes to the temporomandibular joint. This joint, located just in front of your ears where the skull and lower jaw meet, plays a pivotal role in daily functions such as chewing, speaking, and even making facial expressions. If this joint becomes inflamed, it can lead to discomfort and dysfunction to the joint and its surrounding structures. TMJ disorder can even lead to a host of troubling symptoms beyond the jaw.

Symptoms of TMJ Disorders

Temporomandibular disorders, or TMJ disorders, encompass a range of conditions causing pain and dysfunction in the joint and the muscles that control jaw movement. Like the knee or elbow joint, the TMJ joint allows for movement with a hinge system. Unfortunately, when the muscles or surrounding tissues are inflamed, the sliding hinge movement can be uncomfortable or even painful.

The exact cause of a person's TMJ disorder is often difficult to determine, involving a combination of factors including genetics, arthritis, co-morbidities, or jaw injuries. Some patients experience jaw discomfort from grinding their teeth at night, for example. The experience can present with symptoms such as:

  • Jaw pain or tenderness
  • Difficulty in chewing
  • Aching facial pain
  • Clicking or popping sounds in the joint
  • Locking of the joint, making it difficult to open or close the mouth
  • Neurological symptoms like headaches or dizziness
  • Tinnitus

It's the last point in the list, the connection to neurological activities, that sparks our interest in this piece—how could TMJ possibly lead to hearing impairment?

Hearing Loss and TMJ

To understand how TMJ might lead to hearing loss, we need to appreciate the location of the middle and inner ear and surrounding structures like the temporomandibular joint. Due to their close proximity, the middle ear and Eustachian tube are sometimes affected, leading to the "clogged" ear feeling or feeling of fullness in the ear.

The Chain Reaction

The mechanics of sound conduction involve multiple elements working in harmony. Should the temporomandibular joint's misalignment or disorder put pressure on the temporomandibular joint's disc or cartilage, inflammation can occur, causing a cascade of events:

  • Eustachian Tube Dysfunction: The Eustachian tube, which links the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat, may become blocked due to over-tensed muscles around the TMJ. This can lead to a sensation of fullness in the ears, reduced ability to equalize pressure, and potentially, conductive hearing loss.
  • Muscle Tension and Tinnitus: Chronic muscle tension associated with TMJ disorders can result in chronic tinnitus or ringing in the ears. This constant perception of sound can make it difficult to hear or concentrate.
  • Termporomandibular Joint Pressure: During jaw movement, significant pressure changes are experienced by the surrounding structures. In some cases, these pressure fluctuations can directly affect the cochlear function, resulting in sounds not being transmitted appropriately, thus leading to hearing issues.

The complexity of this interaction is neither immediate nor direct. It's often a slow burn, a subtle progression of worsening symptoms that can lead to these experiences.

Diagnosing Hearing Loss

An audiologic test battery is essential to determine whether hearing loss is present, as well as the potential cause of the hearing loss. A comprehensive hearing evaluation typically encompasses a series of tests designed to assess different aspects of hearing and ear health, offering a holistic view of a patient's hearing health.

Components of an Audiologic Test Battery

  • Pure-tone air conduction: This test evaluates the softest sounds a person can hear at each frequency. During testing, you'll wear a pair of headphones and listen for soft beeps.
  • Bone conduction:  This test can reveal whether the hearing loss is due to issues in the outer or middle ear (conductive hearing loss) or inner ear (sensorineural hearing loss). A headband will be placed behind your ear while you listen for soft beeps.
  • Speech testing: This test assesses the softest speech you can detect as well as how well you can understand speech at comfortable volume. For this test, you'll repeat back words that you hear through the headphones.
  • Tympanometry: This test measures the movement of the eardrum in response to air pressure changes, offering insights into middle ear health. For individuals with TMJ-related hearing issues, tympanometry can help identify any abnormalities affecting ear pressure or function.

These tests, when combined, allow audiologists to form a comprehensive understanding of the patient's hearing health. Through the detailed information gathered, audiologists can pinpoint the nature and extent of hearing loss. Most commonly, hearing loss related to TMJ disorders appears as conductive hearing loss on the audiogram.

Treatment and Management of TMJ-Related Hearing Loss

Fortunately, most TMJ disorders are manageable with self-treatment and may not result in hearing loss. However, for individuals with TMJ disorders who are experiencing discomfort or hearing impairments, prompt management is critical. The treatment approach usually involves a multidisciplinary team, including audiologists, dentists, and sometimes, physical therapists.

Treatment Approaches

At the onset of symptoms, conservative TMJ treatments offer viable means of addressing the issue. Techniques to alleviate tension in the jaw and surrounding muscles can include:

  • Oral Appliances: Often, a custom oral mouthguard, splint, or bite guard is prescribed to minimize the detrimental effects of clenching and grinding, known as bruxism.
  • Physical Therapy: Specialized exercise programs can help restore normal motion and flexibility in the jaw, aiming to release pressure on the structures that contribute to symptoms.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Simple adjustments in diet and habits, such as gum-chewing or nail-biting, may help reduce symptoms.
  • Injections: For inflammation-induced symptoms, injections with corticosteroids into the joint can provide temporary relief, sometimes paving the way for rehabilitative therapy.
  • Acupuncture: This alternative treatment has been used to treat a variety of TMJ symptoms, with reported success rates.

Holistic Practices

Beyond medical and surgical treatments, the holistic approach to TMJ disorders and their potential hearing loss consequences can benefit from:

  • Stress Management: Given the strong connection between TMJ disorders and stress, techniques like meditation, yoga, or cognitive-behavioral therapy can be invaluable.
  • Nutrition and Supplements: There's growing evidence that certain nutrients and supplements can aid in managing inflammation and supporting the healing process. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new regimen.

The overarching theme in treatment is personalization. Each individual's experience with TMJ and its potential hearing loss is inherently unique, demanding a tailored approach to find relief.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the intricate link between TMJ disorders and hearing loss paints a picture of the complex ways our body's systems interconnect. Taking steps towards managing TMJ can not only alleviate discomfort but also keep you hearing your best. By embracing a holistic approach to wellness, incorporating both medical and lifestyle strategies, individuals can achieve significant relief and enhance their quality of life. Remember, your health journey is a personal one, and while it may include bumps along the way, progress is always possible with patience, understanding, and the right guidance.

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