UPDATE: For detailed information and practical steps to help you beat TMJ disorder naturally, take a look at TMJ No More.
When it comes to TMJ, inflammation is a big factor behind the pain, stiffness, swelling and redness around the joint that contributes towards dysfunction and reduced quality of life associated with this debilitating condition.
TMJ or temporomandibular joint disorder is a painful condition where the temporomandibular joint on either side of the face is damaged by dislocation, trauma or arthritis causing a range of problematic signs and symptoms including pain, loss of jaw movement, head and neck muscle pain, pain in the eyes or teeth and a grating feeling when the jaw is opened or closed.
With many contributing causes and expressions of this disease, it’s difficult to fully understand and control this condition, and it can often be complicated to treat.
A good start is for us to try to understand what it happening in the disease process of TMJ.
The temporomandibular joint is like the ‘hinge’ of the jaw.
It's the joint we use whenever we open or close our mouths, whether it’s to chew our food, talk or yawn.
In order for the joint to function smoothly and normally, the jaw must be correctly aligned, and the parts of the joint that rub together when the jaw moves within the joint must be well lubricated and smooth, to allow easy motion.
In TMJ there is some dysfunction within the joint, whether the bones are rubbing on the wrong angle due to joint displacement, or there is some form of joint degeneration due to arthritis or injury.
In this case, every time the jaw moves there is resistance and friction, and this leads to the inflammatory process.
TMJ and Inflammation
When the inflammatory process begins in the temporomandibular joint, there is a range of effects that produce the characteristic symptoms of TMJ.
The inflammatory process is an effect that is actually initiated by the body, and normally it is a healthy and important bodily function.
When something goes wrong in the body, such as bacteria entering the body, the inflammatory response is activated to try to get rid of those foreign invaders.
The activation of the inflammatory response sets in motion a cascade of activity to help rid the body of the bacteria or foreign object. The body sends a range of cells and chemical molecules to the area to help deal with the problem and increases blood flow to the area, causing swelling, redness, warmth and pain.
In a variety of conditions however, this otherwise normal inflammatory response gets out of control, and wreaks havoc with prolonged pain, swelling and stiffness.
This is the process occurring in TMJ.
When an issue occurs inside the temporomandibular joint that initiates inflammation, the inflammation continues and escalates, causing all the symptoms of pain, stiffness and swelling associated with TMJ.
Certain medications can help to relieve this inflammation and provide some respite from the painful symptoms, but these drugs often have unpleasant side effects, such as stomach irritation.
The good news is that changes in diet and most importantly the inclusion of a natural anti-inflammatory – omega-3 fatty acids – can help to significantly reduce inflammation and provide relief.
Omega-3’s and Inflammation
It has been repeatedly shown in many scientific studies that Omega-3 fatty acids are as, or more effective at reducing inflammation and its correlated symptoms such as pain, as NSAIDs (non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like ibuprofen.
This makes Omega-3 fatty acids very important in the management of inflammatory conditions such as TMJ and therefore a supplement that all sufferers of TMJ should consider.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that is extremely beneficial for heart health, brain development and joint function, as well as reducing inflammation all throughout the body.
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation through the action of compounds called resolvins and protectins that are found in Omega-3 oils.
These compounds act on the process of inflammation in the same way that ibuprofen does, inhibiting the enzymes that promote inflammation in the body. With omega-3 oils the inflammatory process is not only stopped, the helpful compounds in the oil help to protect and heal the body parts affected.
Omega-3’s reduce overall inflammation and protect the body, the effect of which is particularly useful in the temporomandibular joint for sufferers of TMJ.
In TMJ sufferers, omega-3’s help to not only stop the inflammation, pain and swelling in the joint, but they also contribute to the repair of the bones and cartilage, meaning the joint runs more smoothly and without pain and stiffness.
Studies have shown that the anti-inflammatory and healing effect of omega-3 fatty acids can be equal to or even superior to conventional anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, which is an astonishing discovery.
Even if anti-inflammatory drugs or Omega-3’s alone can’t provide the relief you need, they can be used together to provide a greater anti-inflammatory and pain relief effect than either one could achieve alone.
This is why Omega-3 fatty acids are such an essential supplement for TMJ sufferers.
Are Omega-3’s and fish oil the same?: Omega-3 Sources
Whenever omega-3 oils are mentioned, fish oil is the association that immediately comes to mind.
Fish oils derived from oily fish such as tuna, salmon and sardines are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but they are not the same thing exactly.
Fish oils are made up of a range of oils that includes omega-3 fatty acids, for example, in a supplement containing 2000mg of fish oil, 1000mg of that might be omega-3 fatty acids specifically.
For the management of inflammatory conditions, supplementation of omega-3 oils is generally the best way to get enough active ingredient to provide an anti-inflammatory effect.
There are 2 main types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements, and these are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). While DHA is most important for brain development, EPA is the fatty acid that is more important in reducing inflammation and improving TMJ symptoms, and this is the component you should look out for when purchasing an omega-3 supplement.
While a supplement may contain 1000 mg of fish oil, this may be equivalent to only 300mg omega-3 fatty acids, and only 180mg of actual EPA.
The recommended intake for inflammatory relief symptoms is 1000mg of combination EPA/DHA per day (equivalent to about 3000mg fish oil), but under a doctor’s supervision, this could be increased further if more benefit could be derived.
If you just can’t stomach fish oils, have an allergy to fish or want a vegetarian option, ALA (alpha linoleic acid) is another omega-3 oil that is a good alternative. ALA can be turned into EPA or DHA in the body, providing similar benefits to fish oil.
Food sources include walnuts, linseeds, soybean oil and canola oil, or as a supplement it can be found in a concentrated form in flaxseed oil.
Because this form of omega-3 has to be converted to EPA in the body however, the effect is not as strong as fish oil derived EPA.