Individuals with temporomandibular disorder (TMD) suffer from persistent facial pain and exhibit abnormal sensitivity to tactile stimulation. To better understand the pathophysiological mechanisms underlying TMD, we investigated cortical correlates of this abnormal sensitivity to touch. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we recorded cortical responses evoked by low frequency vibration of the index finger in subjects with TMD and in healthy controls (HC). Distinct subregions of contralateral SI, SII, and insular cortex responded maximally for each group. Although the stimulus was inaudible, primary auditory cortex was activated in TMDs. TMDs also showed greater activation bilaterally in anterior cingulate cortex and contralaterally in the amygdala. Differences between TMDs and HCs in responses evoked by innocuous vibrotactile stimulation within SI, SII, and the insula paralleled previously reported differences in responses evoked by noxious and innocuous stimulation, respectively, in healthy individuals. This unexpected result may reflect a disruption of the normal balance between central resources dedicated to processing innocuous and noxious input, manifesting itself as increased readiness of the pain matrix for activation by even innocuous input. Activation of the amygdala in our TMD group could reflect the establishment of aversive associations with tactile stimulation due to the persistence of pain.
This article presents evidence that central processing of innocuous tactile stimulation is abnormal in TMD. Understanding the complexity of sensory disruption in chronic pain could lead to improved methods for assessing cerebral cortical function in these patients.
Keywords: Temporomandibular disorders (TMD), fMRI, cortical imbalance, SI, chronic pain