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UNC Researchers Produce New Findings in Large-Scale Jaw Pain Study

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Recent findings about painful-jaw problems that affect millions of Americans have led to a better understanding of pain disorders

Dr. William Maixner, Director of the Center for Neurosensory Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry (Photo courtesy UNC)Researchers at the Center for Neurosensory Disorders (CND), a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Dentistry, served as the lead researchers in the first large-scale clinical jaw-pain study, called the Orofacial Pain: Prospective Evaluation and Risk Assessment (OPPERA). The study, led by Dr. William Maixner, Director of the CND at UNC, provides new insights into potential causes of tempromandibular joint disorders (TMD).

The findings, published in the November issue of the Journal of Pain, should lead to new methods of diagnosing facial pain conditions, predicting who will be susceptible to them and new treatment approaches.

"Previous studies haven’t been able to be as conclusive as OPPERA because they’ve often included fewer participants and didn’t follow participants for an extended amount of time,” said Dr. Maixner. “OPPERA is allowing us to study potential biological, psychological, and genetic risk factors over a longer period of time, so we will be able to better evaluate the association of these factors with TMJD. This novel study will also allow us to learn more about pain disorders in general and will improve our ability to diagnose and treat chronic pain conditions across the board."

The longitudinal study builds upon earlier studies by members of the multi-university research team, who created a broad conceptual model to determine the condition’s causes. The model, first published in 2006, has been key in directing continuing research. “The model, like a compass to a traveler, predicts the route ahead in the development of specific persistent pain disorders,” said Dr. Maixner. “In this case, we predicted that biological and psychological risk determinants, which are modified by both life history and genetic factors, contribute to the onset and persistence of TMD.”

The research team will continue to publish additional findings and insights as the data are analyzed.

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