When we focus on the health links between your mouth and the rest of your body, we’re also aware that there are complex links between your emotional health and your physical health. One emotionally unhealthy state is being constantly stressed, which, in turn, can damage your physical health and may play a crucial role in your development of chronic pain conditions such as TMJ.
Blocking Stress in Arthritic Mice
Stress isn’t just an emotion, it’s a complex range of biochemical responses, too. And one of those biochemicals is the protein known as FKBP51. Variations on the gene that produce this protein, FKBP5, have been linked to a person’s risk of developing mood disorders, such as major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But variations on the gene have also been shown to influence how much pain a person experiences after physical trauma. Because, again, physical pain isn’t entirely physical. It has a strong emotional component.
Researchers explored the role of this protein for chronic pain in mice by showing that mice without the protein experienced less pain from arthritis and nerve damage. These mice had been specifically modified not to produce FKBP51, and, compared to control mice, they seemed less impacted by arthritis and nerve injury. The mice were more mobile and gave fewer signs of chronic pain.
Researchers were also looking into the potential of a mood drug that blocks FKBP51. The drug has been developed to help with mood disorders, but it was hoped that it might also help alleviate chronic pain. It turns out that researchers were right, as mice that were given the drug also showed a much lower response to pain than control mice.
This is very exciting, because people with chronic pain are very susceptible to mood disorders like depression (possibly because of the FKBP51 protein), and it would be nice to have a treatment that could address both.
What Is the Role of Stress in Your Pain?
Although this drug is years away from being available, there is something we can do right now if you have chronic pain that is related to your stress, and it doesn’t require a drug. For people with TMJ and migraine headaches, stress is often a fundamental trigger. Stress can cause you to clench your jaw, building up tension in your muscles. This tension can then trigger pain directly in the muscles, resulting in jaw pain and tension headaches, but it can also stimulate the trigeminal nerve, triggering migraines.
This cycle of stress and pain is facilitated by muscles that are already in a stressed position. If your muscles are constantly tense, it only takes a small amount of stress to start the pain cycle. But with TMJ treatment, we can find the most relaxed position for your muscles, which gives you more of a buffer before stress starts to trigger pain. You will experience less jaw pain and fewer headaches.