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Pain in the eye socket area can be an unpleasant and concerning symptom.
The cause of eye pain is most often due to pressure on the ocular nerves, but there are many potential causes and contributing factors for this nerve pressure.
Common culprits include eye disorders, infections or allergies, however sometimes a larger nerve issue or underlying medical condition could be to blame.
Because of the proximity of the jaw joint to the eye socket, issues with this joint could be responsible for eye socket pain.
This joint is called the temporomandibular joint, and it acts as the hinge that connects the jaw to the upper part of the skull and allows the mouth to open and close. The joint is situated next to the eye socket and between the ear, and can be felt by opening and closing the mouth.
Sometimes this joint gets damaged due to arthritis, dislocation or some other cause, producing inflammation, pain and soreness in the joint and the surrounding area, including the eye socket.
Prolonged temporomandibular pain and inflammation is classified as temporomandibular joint disorder or TMJ for short, and can be a painful, chronic condition that diminishes quality of life without proper treatment.
What is TMJ?
As mentioned above, TMJ is a painful disorder of inflammation, stiffness and soreness in the temporomandibular joint, located between the eye socket and the ear.
There is a temporomandibular joint on either side of the face, forming a hinge for the jaw to open and close.
The inflammatory process involved in TMJ can cause issues that spread into other nearby body areas, such as eye socket pain, ear ache, headaches, and head and neck muscle tension.
Sometimes the cause of this pain and dysfunction may be clear, for example in the presence of arthritis, joint displacement or after some kind of trauma, but often TMJ occurs as a result of a range of factors and causes, any one of which is difficult to pinpoint. Contributing causal factors can include stress, teeth grinding, bite problems and even genetics or hormones.
Although it isn’t life threatening, TMJ can often be chronic and quite detrimental to one’s well being and quality of life.
It’s estimated approximately 20-30% of the population will be affected by TMJ and most often in the younger age group of 20-40 year olds and more commonly affecting females than males.
If you fit into one of these demographics then there is a slightly greater risk your eye socket pain may be connected with TMJ.
How does TMJ affect eye socket pain?
The pain of dysfunction in the temporomandibular joint can also caused referred pain to affect the eye and eye socket.
This seems to be predominantly caused by interference with the ocular (eye) nerves, particularly the trigeminal nerve.
The trigeminal nerve goes to the teeth, jaw muscles, and the temporomandibular joint as well as feeding up to the eye and eye socket.
Inflammation and irritation caused by friction in the temporomandibular joint can irritate and cause dysfunction in the trigeminal nerve which in turn leads on to pain and discomfort in the eye socket.
As the inflammation and pain in the temporomandibular joint worsens, the transferred pain and irritation to the nerve, and consequently the eye will also worsen. Pain in this area could also be due to inflammation, as redness, swelling and soreness can occur in the eye area along with TMJ as an inflammatory response to the friction occurring in the joint.
In the inflammatory response the body sends special inflammation mediators to produce heat and swelling in order to eliminate infection, but this inflammation is also quite painful and sometimes unnecessary.
TMJ can also trigger muscle spasms, tightness and soreness in the ocular muscles, as ‘snags’ in the joint can cause the muscles to seize up.
What are some of the other symptoms of TMJ?
The signs and symptoms of TMJ can vary quite a lot, because the presentation of the disease can appear in various parts of the head, neck and jaw.
TMJ is a complex condition that can affect the temporomandibular joint on either side of the face, the bones, the jaw, teeth, neck muscles, head muscles and nerves.
TMJ can affect the temporomandibular joint on either side of the face, meaning it is possible for symptoms to appear on either the left side or right side alone, or both sides together.
In addition to eye socket pain, common symptoms of TMJ include headaches and facial pain, pain in the teeth, neck and/or shoulder, hearing difficulty or loss and occasionally tinnitus (buzzing in the ears).
There are 3 important signs used for the diagnosis of TMJ, which you can use to check yourself, and a doctor will confirm for an official diagnosis.
3 Critical Signs of TMJ
The 3 most important signs of TMJ are as follows:
- Pain in the temporomandibular joint that gets worse when the joint or the surrounding muscles are moved, touched or massaged. The pain can get worse with prolonged eating, talking or yawning.
- Difficulty moving the jaw or trouble doing normal daily activities involving jaw movement, like chewing, talking and yawning. Sometimes the jaw may be very stiff, even locking, or giving the feeling of ‘catching’.
- Experiencing the feeling or sound of clicking, grating or popping in the jaw with movement. This is a sign of joint damage where the bones are rubbing together at the joint.
These 3 signs are important indicators of TMJ and are often used to confirm a diagnosis of TMJ.
If you have one or more of these symptoms along with eye socket pain, it’s important to mention it to a health professional for further testing and an accurate diagnosis.
What should I do if I experience eye socket pain?
Eye socket pain can be a common symptom associated with TMJ, but it can also occur with a variety of other conditions. The pain associated with TMJ can often be painful and uncomfortable, but generally doesn’t cause any serious damage, nor is it life threatening.
A visit to the doctor or a specialist is the best course of action if you have prolonged eye socket pain.
It’s good to choose a doctor familiar with TMJ if you can who will be aware of the signs and symptoms and listen to your concerns.
When conducting the investigation for TMJ, the doctor will most likely ask you questions about the symptoms you’ve been having and perform a few simple tests. These could include feeling the joint and the muscle to evaluate pain and swelling, moving the joint, massaging some of the muscles around the joint, looking at how the joint moves, and listening to the joint with a stethoscope.
If you are diagnosed with TMJ there are a range of treatments to help you cope with the condition, from prescribed medication and jaw splints, to natural supplements, massage, physical therapy and some simple rest and relaxation.
While eye socket pain and other painful symptoms associated with TMJ can be uncomfortable, painful or even debilitating, in time most sufferers learn to understand how to best manage their symptoms and regain better function and quality of life.