These Illnesses Could Mimic Temporomandibular Joint Disorder

With the warm days and late nights of summer finally over, many people are spending more time indoors. But for some, there are painful reminders of summer lingering in their bodies – reminders that may never go away. That’s because an estimated 30,000 people each year contract Lyme disease, most commonly in the summer months. Worse yet, they may not even know they have it for months, years or ever. Further complicating matters, Lyme disease symptoms are often so vague they mimic other illnesses, causing patients to be repeatedly misdiagnosed.

One illness that is often confused with Lyme disease is temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Because Lyme disease and TMJ disorder both share some of the same characteristic symptoms – such as headaches, joint aches, swollen joints and stiffness – many doctors initially mistake Lyme disease for TMJ disorder.

But unlike TMJ disorder, Lyme disease can cause permanent damage to the nervous system and to joints throughout the body, not just to the temporomandibular joint. Thankfully, there are some telltale signs of Lyme disease that are not present with TMJ disorder. This can often help create a starting point for differentiating between the two disorders.

“With Lyme disease, you will start noticing symptoms anywhere from three to 30 days after you are bitten by a tick,” says Dr. Alexandra George, a dentist who specializes in the treatment of TMJ disorder in her Wexford, Pennsylvania, practice. “The first symptom will usually be a rash, along with a fever, headache and fatigue.”

While headaches are often common with TMJ disorder, fever, rash and fatigue are not. If you experience any of these symptoms alone or together, see your doctor as soon as possible to rule out Lyme disease – or to undergo treatment.

“Because of the damage Lyme can cause to your joints and nervous system, early detection will give you the best prognosis,” says George. “With TMD, we have more time, but often the pain is so severe most patients don’t want to wait to get treatment.”

Experts are also cautioning that another new tick-borne illness is making its way around the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the United States. Called Powassan Virus, this illness is quite similar to Lyme. Powassan-infected ticks are most active from summer through mid-fall and could still pose a risk if you spend time outdoors, so be sure to cover up in long sleeves and pants and do a thorough tick check on your family and pets each time you go outside.

Dr. Alexandra S. George

Medically reviewed by Dr. Alexandra S. George - D.D.S., L.Vl.I.F. on November 7th, 2018