Researchers recently identified stem cells with the ability to restore damaged joints and produce new cartilage. The cells happen to reside in the temporomandibular joints, which link the jaw to the skull.
The temporomandibular joints facilitate jaw movement, and they are integral in our abilities to speak, bite, chew and swallow. The joints are perhaps best known for their role in temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), which afflicts millions of Americans and can cause chronic headaches, jaw pain and other uncomfortable symptoms.
The Cartilage Before the Horse
Cartilage is a type of tissue that connects joints and bones, and allows for fluid motions. The temporomandibular joints contain fibrocartilage, a collagen-rich form of cartilage that is also an element of the spinal cord’s invertebral discs and the knees’ meniscus.
There are many factors that can cause the onset of TMJ, and one of them is trauma to or erosion of the fibrocartilage in the temporomandibular joints. This damage may be the result of physical injury, such as an impact to the jaw, or repetitive stress that causes the fibrocartilage to deteriorate.
It has long been believed that fibrocartilage cannot regenerate, and that any damage to fibrocartilage is permanent. But new research may challenge that thinking.
Stem Cells and TMJ
A research team at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine identified stem cells in the temporomandibular joints that may repair damaged fibrocartilage and treat some instances of TMJ.
Researchers isolated these stem cells and transplanted them in mice with injured temporomandibular joints. The cells generated new cartilage within the temporomandibular joints and formed new bone in the area where the jaw connects to the skull via the temporomandibular joints.
Scientists also discovered a molecular impulse that diminishes fibrocartilage stem cells. They found that injecting a molecular protein known as sclerostin interfered with that signal and promoted cartilage regrowth. Researchers believe their work could pave the way for an injectable medication to restore damaged cartilage in various body parts, including the temporomandibular joints. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.
Until cartilage regeneration becomes a widespread reality, there are a number of treatments that can reduce or eliminate TMJ-related pain.
Many TMJ patients benefit from wearing an orthotic device commonly called a “bite splint.” This appliance is similar to an athletic mouthguard, but it is custom made to fit your unique bite structure and support proper jaw position.
Others may need to correct a bite condition—or malocclusion—that places undue stress on the temporomandibular joint and the trigeminal nerve, which registers sensation throughout the face. The best treatment option for you will depend on the individual nature of your condition.
Austin neuromuscular dentist Dr. Dan Matthews is dedicated to helping patients find lasting relief from TMJ pain. To learn more about TMJ diagnosis and treatment, or to schedule your TMJ consultation, please call our Bee Cave Road office at 512-452-2273.