Is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ) Genetic? What Does Science Tell Us?

Apr 15, 2024 | TMJ/TMD

What Is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMD)?

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) is a disorder of the temporomandibular joints (TMJ), jaw, muscles, and nerves associated with chronic facial pain. TMD can cause pain in your jaw joints and the muscles and ligaments controlling your jaw’s movement. Many episodes of temporomandibular dysfunctions or disorders (TMD), also called TMJ disorders, are temporary and go away on their own with noninvasive treatments. TMD can significantly impact your life by affecting your ability to chew, yawn, or babble.

Common Symptoms of TMJ Disorders

Symptoms of TMJ disorders or dysfunction can vary greatly. People with TMJ won’t all experience the same symptoms or degree of pain. The pain from TMD can be mild or severe, with some people experiencing chronic pain.

Common symptoms of temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction include:

  • Aching pain in and around your ear
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty chewing or pain while chewing
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Limited movement or locking of the temporomandibular joint, making it difficult to open or close your mouth
  • Pain or tenderness in the jaw joint and chewing muscles (the most common symptom)
  • Pain that spreads to the face and neck
  • Stiffness in your jaw
  • Swelling of the side of the face
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing loss, or dizziness
  • Toothaches

Most Common Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorders

While a diagnosed condition can be the cause of TMJ in some people, many people have TMJ without an apparent cause. The most common conditions that cause temporomandibular joint pain and dysfunction are:

  • Disc displacement: Disc displacement occurs when the articular disc that is attached to the jaw muscles becomes displaced and causes pain. This condition is believed to be the most common cause of temporomandibular joint disorders.
  • Injuries: Damage to the jaw bones, joints, and muscles can be caused by sports injuries, falls, car accidents, and even dental procedures.
  • Degenerative joint disease, also called osteoarthritis, or the body’s wear and tear on the TMJ area. This is most common in middle-aged or elderly adults.

Is Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder Genetic?

When someone experiences symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorder without an obvious cause, it is believed that their TMJ is genetic. For many years, researchers, scientists, and other professionals have believed that specific forms of TMD are genetic. A controversial debate continues as to which cases of TMD and which aspects of the disorder are genetic.

While TMJ is believed to be genetic, an individual’s genetic makeup doesn’t guarantee they will have TMJ. Scientists now believe behavior and environment interact with a person’s genetic makeup. Today, many different types of healthcare providers across multiple specialties study temporomandibular joint disorders from several angles.

Risk Factors for TMJ Conditions Inherited through Genetics

In addition to exploring whether TMD is inherited or genetic, researchers have proven a genetic link exists between TMD and certain risk factors for TMD conditions. Some factors researchers are currently researching include:

Positioning of the Jaw and Teeth

TMJ disorders and symptoms occur because the bite in your jaw and teeth doesn’t come together correctly. The anatomy of the temporomandibular joint, surrounding muscles and ligaments, and jaw bones and teeth is believed to be in the genes from birth.

A complex set of genes must work together at the right time during pregnancy to ensure the correct structure of the head, mouth, and jaw. If an error occurs in how these genes are formed and expressed, one might be at risk for TMJ dysfunction. However, what happens in patients with TMJ on the molecular and cellular level and their exact genetic makeup has yet to be understood.

The position and shape of teeth are also inherited. People with teeth larger or smaller than usual, crooked teeth, or teeth out of the correct position are at high risk for TMJ dysfunction.


A new field of science, epigenetics, started in the 1990s. Epigenetics studies how environmental factors interact with someone’s genetic makeup. Some scientists believe the genes for specific medical conditions can be activated or inactivated based on what occurs in your external environment. This means it’s possible someone who has a genetic predisposition for temporomandibular joint disorder might never develop the condition, or something as simple as excess stress in their environment could trigger TMJ symptoms.

Related Conditions that Are Inherited

People who have TMD are more likely also to have one or more chronic conditions like headaches, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, depression, arthritis, or even irritable bowel syndrome. Most of these conditions are more common in women and have a vital genetic component. It’s possible to develop one of these conditions and later experience symptoms of another condition. Some people experience a sudden onset of temporomandibular joint disorder symptoms with another chronic illness at the same time.

TMJ and Chronic Pain

The temporomandibular joint disorder is a chronic pain disorder, and researchers have discovered that many people who have TMJ also have one or more other chronic illnesses or chronic pain disorders like fibromyalgia, endometriosis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. If you have any of these conditions, you’ll likely develop a second one later. Scientists are still not sure why chronic pain disorders often coexist.

One standard theory for coexisting conditions is that one condition can be responsible for behavior that causes TMD. For example, someone who has anxiety might grind their teeth and clench their jaw, which tightens their jaw muscles and puts extra stress on their muscles and joints.

What Does the Future Hold for TMJ and Genetic Research?

As we gain a greater understanding of the genetic and environmental factors that lead to TMJ dysfunction, we are closer to more effective treatments. When healthcare professionals understand each person’s genetic makeup, they can predict who might be at risk for TMJ and provide appropriate treatment in the earlier stages. Each patient who has temporomandibular joint disorder will have a unique combination of behavioral or environmental elements, hormonal balance, and genetic makeup that can contribute to TMJ. Having the proper treatment for each patient can improve their quality of life.

A new theory researchers have been exploring is that chronic pain from TMJ or other conditions with no visible cause might start in the brain and the central nervous system. Researching and understanding the genetic and environmental factors that can contribute to temporomandibular joint disorders may also lead to a better understanding of other medical conditions.

TMJ Specialists at Sleep Better Columbus Can Help

If you think you have TMJ or are predisposed to developing it, Dr. Levy and the specialists at Sleep Better Columbus can help. We are committed to providing compassionate care for all patients and helping each one find the best treatment for their temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder.

Call Sleep Better Columbus at (614) 777-7350 to schedule an appointment and TMD evaluation today and get all your questions and concerns answered.

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