An improperly aligned mandible with temporomandibular joint disorder symptoms may go along with the symptoms of a host of other diseases, including Parkinson's disease.
So, thinking that other symptoms will improve after treating the alignment and symptoms of TMJ disorders might not be a far leap – at least that was the case with retired dental hygienist Carla Gantz.
Gantz filed away some papers that linked TMJ and Parkinson's symptoms and brought them out when her Parkinson's disease worsened in 2011.
"I sent him this research and asked him what he thought of it," Gantz said of her boss, Dr. William "Spike" Funk.
A week or two later, Funk, who has treated TMJ symptoms for 30 years as a doctor of dental medicine, went to Virginia to meet Dr. L.D. Pankey, who pioneered using a specific mandibular orthotic that ultimately helped improve Gantz's symptoms.
Funk shadowed experts for four summers, took seminars and otherwise gobbled up all the research he could on the subject. Gantz has a folder thick of information that suggests, among other things, that TMJ and improper jaw alignment is linked to the symptoms of many other diseases, including fibromyalgia.
"This is not a cure," Funk was quick to point out. "But in 80 percent of the patients, it can help their symptoms."
The improvements are wide ranging and typically are slow to come, although one of Funk's patients showed immediate improvement.
"She was leaning back in the chair and her feet were doing this number," Funk says, sort of shaking and nearly clapping his feet together. "I test fitted her and her feet just (stopped shaking). It was immediate."
For other patients, the improvements are gradual, just as the good effects gradually dissipate if you stop using the orthotic. Todd Hampton of Todd County lost his orthotic a few times, and it was a few days before he could get a new one. He definitely noticed that his symptoms worsened without the orthotic and improved when he got a new one.
Funk said Hampton initially was using a walker, and a year later he uses a cane for assistance and can climb stairs and hop on his tractor.
Hampton said his walking and speech, although weak, have improved as a result of using the device. He really never had any of the tremors sometimes affiliated with Parkinson's disease.
The simple explanation is that a properly aligned mandible allows formerly pinched blood flow to the brain to return to normal. The more complicated explanation is that those pinch spots may be cutting off the flow of dopamine to the brain, instead sending stress signals that confuse the brain, causing a host of symptoms such as tremors. When those pinch spots are relieved, the delivery of dopamine continues and the brain gets the right message.
While Gantz was speaking, she took out the orthotic (which she does when she eats), and there was a slight increase in her hand tremors. She put it back in and they improved slightly. The mouth piece has allowed her to cut back on some medicines and has completely alleviated pain she had in her right leg. Gantz said she has mostly good days. Still, she retired from being a hygienist and is a self-described gopher for Funk on the one day a week he works.
She knows that because Parkinson's is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement, her symptoms will likely worsen. But she is happy for now to have held that off.
Funk said the orthotic is not recognized as a standard treatment for Parkinson's and is not covered by most insurance companies. They aren't "terribly" expensive, but it is important to go to someone who knows what they are doing, he said. Funk is careful not to reveal too much about the orthotic – he doesn't want someone with untrained hands to use it.
His partner, Emily Hilliard, DMD, is educating herself and receiving training on how to properly fit patients with the needed orthotic and how to follow their progress.
Last week, Funk was checking with Hampton to see how he was doing, including checking to see if his bite looked good. Those bite marks are a way to tell if the mandible is set properly.
Funk said the improvements he has seen in patients is one of the reasons he continues to work.
— For more information, visit eastwooddentalbg.com or call 270-781-4880.