The Surprising TMJ Connection to Back Pain and Health
About 8 out of 10 Americans experience back pain at some point, and more than $100 billion is spent collectively each year seeking relief.
Lower back and neck pain have been some of my own personal challenges growing older. My scoliosis coupled with my workaholic “bad habits” have not been kind to my musculoskeletal health. I’ve had to relearn many lifestyle habits, exercises and techniques for lifting and moving heavy objects as the years have gone by.
There are many cutting edge therapies out there—acupuncture, nutritional supplements, stem cell therapy, prolotherapy, topical DMSO, platelet-rich plasma, high intensity laser and core-strengthening exercises, and I have tried almost all of them!
I recently caught up with a biomechanical expert, Dr. Jeff Mersky, a cranial facial chiropractor who practices in Del Mar, CA. I was so impressed with his credentials and expertise, that I compiled a series of questions for a blog interview. So, read on and sit up straight for even more life-enhancing strategies that offer natural spine solutions we can all take advantage of!
Q: Since structure controls function, how important is muscular skeletal health—especially as we grow older and hopefully wiser into our period of “aging”?
DR. MERSKY: Musculoskeletal health is very important to maintain excellent health. The body is like a pyramid. Geometrically it is the strongest of all structures. When you remove one side of the pyramid and alter it becomes inherently weaker.
The body has three main sides. Structural/neurological/electromagnetic, emotional and biochemical. The loss of integrity of one will affect the whole. As we age one of the most important factors for longevity is the ability to stand in a field of gravity upright without falling over. We see older and some younger people falling all the time and injuring themselves or who are unable to ambulate well due to weakness and pain in the neuromuscular skeletal system. The inability to stand in gravity is the loss of life. As we age it is wise for us exercise and strengthen, manage our stress/well being, eat well and sleep well. Structure and function are truly synonymous.
Q: You are a cranial/facial chiropractor—a most unique and unusual specialty. What types of conditions do you correct?
DR. MERSKY: The brain controls every aspect of our daily being and coordinates the running of our human systems. It’s housed and protected in the cranium and involves the mostly highly innervated part of the body, the jaw. 80% of the nervous system is in the head and face. So as a chiropractor it makes sense to me to understand this area very well and master treatment of it to get extraordinary results.
Since we bite, chew and swallow around 2,000 times a day any imbalance or irritation into the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) effects the integrity of the body to stay balanced and upright. If the jaw is not tracking right, clicks, pops gets stuck and becomes painful so that you can’t eat, this can alter daily life and make things very miserable.
If the jaw is out of proper alignment nothing below it will be in balance. Just like if the roof of your house became unstable it would ultimately affect the foundation. We call this a descending influence. It is my job to determine if there is a problem coming from the top or bottom of the body. A chiropractor trained in craniofacial methods can make amazing changes for all people.
Many come to my office for treatment of the head, face neck and jaw. Often associated with these complaints are pain, headaches, facial neuralgias, Bell’s Palsy, radicular arm, hand and facial pains, and other assorted neurological issues. I also focus on the importance of stabilizing the lower back, pelvis, feet and knees so that both ends of the body are stable and pain free. I offer full body care but specialize in the head, face and jaw.
In many instances I must resort to a co-treatment model because the only joint in the body I can’t change on my own is the TMJ (temporomandibular joint) and teeth. There are dentists highly trained to remove pain and balance the bite through appliance therapies, tooth repairs and orthodontics to help restore the normal bite movement and tooth balance. These dentists understand that whenever they make a change in the mouth, it can highly affect the rest of the body’s position. Instead of just a pretty smile, it is important to have a functional smile that is harmonious with the rest of the body. The model for neuromuscular structural healthcare is often what the dentist and chiropractor can do together.
Q: You are a “stickler” for oxygenation and the integrity of the TMJ joint. What roles do both of these play in an optimally healthy body?
DR. MERSKY: The first and last thing we will do in this life is to take a breath in and a breath out. Somewhere in between that first and last breath is called life. Without oxygen within 3 minutes we would die. Airway is very primary to us getting oxygen. Some cannot breathe through their mouths due to a pharyngeal or blocked throat due to a collapse in the structure and likewise through the nose. Inability to get oxygen is a very common problem encountered all the time in my office but not appreciated by many in the healing arts as they are unaware of the magnitude.
Awareness is becoming more prevalent because low oxygen leads to damage in the body. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are the four leading causes of death in the US. Three out of four of these are purely low oxygen states and can be remedied if identified and acted upon.
Many people grind and clench their teeth day and night. Many have very poor sleep and snore. The inability to sleep puts us in a state of hyper vigilance or fight or flight. This damages the healing aspects of the body. We cannot regenerate, repair, have good immune function, hormone gut or thyroid function when airflow is lost. All systems are dependent upon this.
Evaluating the jaw and airways are paramount in my office and should be so in every office.
Q: How can we tell if we are mouth or nose breathers? What’s the difference and what can we do to optimize the situation?
DR. MERSKY: If you wake up in the night or morning with a dry mouth that is a very good indication that you are a mouth breather. If you have a sleep partner they will often tell you if you are a mouth breather or you are snoring. If you are congested or have blocked sinuses, this is also a good marker for mouth breathing. If you wake up tired and unrefreshed, this is typically a clue that a problem exists.
The nasal chamber is considered a place that prepares the oxygen we take in to be utilized properly which is then carried by the blood to all body parts. We need to be able to breathe through the nose. If you are a mouth breather, proper oxygen transfer doesn’t take place and you can be both oxygen and sleep deprived.
Q: Please tell me your top tips for maintaining a healthy spine, ligaments, and nerves?
DR. MERSKY: As mentioned before there are four things we can do to balance our systems. NUMBER 1: Do not allow anyone or anything to disturb your peace AKA stress management. Eat well, sleep well and exercise regularly. Maintaining core strength, flexibility and balance goes a long way to keeping the spine and nervous system intact.
Taking chiropractic treatment to keep your nervous system balanced, joining a gym to build balance and strength, utilizing a trainer, physical therapist or taking a yoga/pilates class helps you stay well. Yoga helps us to be more flexible and calms the mind down. Pilates provides core strengthening through resistance and creates stability. A combo of the two can be very potent. When it’s appropriate to do these can be confusing, but there are ways to determine this on an examination.
Using the right mattress and pillow will support the spine so the muscles and ligaments can be stress-free and have a chance to become refreshed.
The shoes you wear have a big effect on your back. They should be well balanced, flexible, and most certainly comfortable. Good shoes not only provide protection for your feet, but also a supportive base that helps the spine and body remain in alignment. Selection of the right shoes, and correctly using inserts if needed to provide even further balance, can help you avoid muscle strain and possible injury.
The discs in your lower spine are loaded three times more while sitting than standing, so long periods of sitting can often create or aggravate a painful back condition. Many people slouch and lean forward, and this poor posture usually leads to muscle tension and pain in the lower back and legs (e.g. Sciatica).
The right office chair plays an important role in promoting good posture and supporting the natural curves of your back. In addition to a comfortable chair, most experts recommend getting up to stretch and walk around every 20 to 30 minutes, as prolonged static posture is stressful for the structures in your spine. You may also consider trying a stand-up desk at work.
Q: Won’t you share some of your success stories?
DR. MERSKY: There have been many successes over my 30 years in practice. I have helped many people that could not get their pain under control and had to resort to drugs and some to surgery to get relief. My goal has always been to get people off of their medications or greatly reduce whenever possible, reduce their pain and help them avoid surgery. There are many alternative treatments that are conservative and I would prefer people start with these methods rather than more invasive procedures. Much like you recommend to your followers. The big goal is improve people’s ability to do their normal daily activities without pain and well.
I recently had a women who had consulted me for severe back pains and muscular spasms for 3 years. She was on 12 different medications for various ailments that left her feeling numb and non functional. She was in so much pain she could not go without the medication and could not live life while she was on it. It was a catch-22 situation. Since she was a caregiver for her elderly mother she was beside herself as to how she was going to do everything that was needed to care for her. Through all of things I mentioned above and some very gentle low force and non-force chiropractic treatment and nutritional guidance she was able to get off all of her medications with my guidance and her physician’s help and now is able to perform her normal daily activities with little to no problems and care for her mom. That is a real success story.
I had an older gentlemen who had ruptured 3 discs in his lower back and had undergone surgery which unfortunately left with him with chronic residual pain and weakness in his legs. His great wish was to be able to walk with his grandson on the beach, but he could not negotiate the sand. We discovered that he had a digestive issue and could not assimilate the proteins into his body to help him heal. He did not make enough hydrochloric acid in his stomach. We also identified that he had sleep apnea and was unable to sleep. He had only 3-4 hours of rest a night. So he always felt tired and on edge which was amplifies by the pain of his back.
After examining his airway through CT scan imaging and having a sleep study e found out that he had central apnea. He was given a CPAP device for night usage and immediately was able to get a good nights rest. With rest comes repair. He was given a good digestive enzyme to help with food breakdown, given an anti-inflammatory diet and chiropractic care. It took persistence and time for him to heal but to day after 6 months of care he is able to walk that beach and he gets around better than some who had no back surgeries.
With simple and conservative methods I have been able to serve many people and enhance their lives. It’s a very blessed place for me to be and I find it extremely rewarding to give back from abundance.
Thank you so much Dr. Mersky! I hope your words of wisdom help to strengthen and stabilize our musculoskeletal framework.
To get in touch with Dr. Mersky, visit his website at http://thenaturalpathsd.com or email him at [email protected]. He is happy to answer questions or try to locate a chiropractor or integrative doctor in your community.
About Jeffrey A. Mersky D.C., APC-M, CSP, QME
After a bad fall at the age of 10 left him with chronic back and neck problem, Dr. Mersky was finally treated by a chiropractor who was able to resolve the pain that conventional medicine could not help him with. This injury led him on a path to help those in need and to continue to increase his education and share his own experience through chiropractic medicine. Dr. Mersky has been in private practice of chiropractic medicine since 1985. He is certified in chiropractic family practice by the American Chiropractic Association and has been awarded the designation of Advanced Practice of Chiropractic Medicine (APC-M) by the American Chiropractic Physicians Credentialing Center. The State Industrial Medical Council of California has certified Dr. Mersky as a Qualified Medical Examiner (QME) and he is considered an expert in industrial/work related injuries.
He holds certified status as an advanced SOT practitioner and instructor of SOT (Sacro Occipital Technique) with a special emphasis on Cranial and TMJ disorders. He is also a frequent teacher of SOT throughout the United States and has special expertise in Clinical Nutrition. As an adjunct faculty professor at Bastyr University of Naturopathic Medicine in San Diego, California, Dr. Mersky also serves on the university advisory board to the President.