Costen’s syndrome and Cervical instability

Ross Hauser, MD

Costen’s syndrome is a somewhat controversial diagnosis. Controversial not in that the symptoms ascribed to it do or do not exist or controversial in the fact that the symptoms this condition describes cannot be treated. The controversy lies in that Costen’s syndrome can be confused with other problems related to the jaw, mouth and ear as it has many of the same symptoms as other mouth, jaw and ear related problems. These overlapping of symptoms can cause confusion in the manner of treatment for the patient.

In the world of temporomandibular disorder (TMD), there are several diagnostic terms that describe a painful problem at the Temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Costen’s syndrome is one of them. Costen’s syndrome is recognized as a problem that can be generated by ear problems including problems with constant noises or sounds generated from the ear and problems of space and balance generated by the signals of the vestibular (inner ear) balance system. What makes a diagnosis of Costen’s syndrome is that there is an apparent cause in the mouth. These can be poorly fitted dentures, overbites, dental occlusions, pain generating from the jaw. In many cases, once the mouth origins of the patient’s symptoms are addressed, then traditional treatments revolving around the resolution of temporomandibular disorder are typically prescribed. But what if the symptoms of Costen’s Syndrome are not coming from the mouth? What if they are coming from cervical spine instqability?

Costen’s syndrome

In the video below, Ross Hauser, MD  discusses Costen’s syndrome and his experience treating patients with the various symptoms associated with mandibular joint neuralgia. This article will expand on this video and present explanatory notes.

It was in 1934 that a group of symptoms were first described by Dr. James Costen as “A syndrome of ear and sinus symptoms dependent upon disturbed function of the temporomandibular joint.”(1)

This image is explained below.

The image above describes that various symptoms ascribed to Costen’s Syndrome or Mandibular Joint Pain.

In the image above we see that Costen’s syndrome is a syndrome accepted by the dental profession as a real entity caused by dental malocclusion.

Dr. Coston noted some of  these symptoms and what he was trying to do was try to figure out why people had these neurologic symptoms and how it could relate to the mouth. He suggested that overbite or “deep bite” (malocclusion) would cause deterioration of the TMJ and stress the facial muscles. As the condition worsened, bone and cartilage damage would occur.

Dental malocclusion

Dental malocclusion has probably been described to you at length. Simply, your teeth do not line up. Many years ago, I personally saw many dentists. I had my teeth shaved down, many different types of splints applied, and various other treatments and applications. Over the course of my career, and after seeing many patients, it became apparent that the treatment of overbite or the focus on overbite for many patients was not the right route of treatment. Treating cervical spine instability was.

This point is shown in a patient we treated at Caring Medical. This patient suffered from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which caused her to be “over flexible” or “double jointed.” This included problems at the TMJ. We noticed that when this patient put her new mouth guard in, one made for her by her dentist, she had sudden reduced cerebellar function. She lost her balance, coordination, and had difficulties walking. All this occurred when she put the mouth guard in. The opposite effect on her symptoms was occurring. The mouth guard became detrimental to her well-being. This shows the problem for this patient ran deep into cervical instability.

How can this be? One possible explanation is that the mouth guard is causing blood flow disturbance. A 2015 study in the Journal of craniomandibular practice noted the benefits of using a mouth guard: “There has been much published evidence that balance can improve by changing the mandible’s position relative to the maxilla as it comes together with the teeth (or oral device) as the endpoint. . . . ”

What this study did was to examine “whether the physiologic rest position of the jaw (oral device overtop of the teeth as endpoint where the muscles of mastication are optimized) can have an effect on cerebral blood flow and physical balance.” The results of this research: “The physiologic rest position of the mandible might have an effect on balance by showing a trend (demonstrating a tendency) in enhancing cerebral blood flow as measured by transcranial Doppler.(2)

This is a positive aspect of the mouth guard. But why did this one patient suffer the opposite? Because while a mouth guard can increase cerebral blood flow, it can also decrease cerebral blood flow as clinically observed. This would indicate, in many, cervical spine instability and a TMJ situation in concert.

In the image above we describe the potential mechanisms by which TMJ problems can cause neurological-like symptoms or the symptoms of Costen’s Syndrome

It starts with TMJ instability which can lead to:

Another path TMJ instability can take in causing neurologic-like symptoms is

I want to pause here so I can briefly present where you can find more information on our website regarding many of the symptoms and disorders just mentioned:

Treatments of Costen’s syndrome

Doctors in Russia published a paper in The Korsakov’s Journal of Neurology and Psychiatry (3) where they made some interesting connections between Costen’s syndrome, cochleovestibular syndrome, and TMJ. First let’s explain cochleovestibular syndrome better. In a paper (4) from the Department of Otolaryngology, Vanderbilt University, cochleovestibular syndrome, is described. “Cochleovestibular nerve compression syndrome is the term used to describe a group of audiovestibular symptoms thought to be due to a vessel compressing the cochleovestibular nerve. These symptoms include recurrent vertigo, continuous disequilibrium and acquired motion intolerance. ”

Returning to the Russian study, the doctors wrote that their objective was to develop an integrated therapy for the combination of pain syndrome and cochleovestibular syndrome  in patients with temporomandibular joint dysfunction. They titled their paper “Comprehensive treatment of Costen syndrome.” What these doctors found was patients who received pharmacological and osteopathic therapy; splint therapy and orthodontic treatment in varying combinations of treatment had “less complaints of pain, tinnitus, dizziness and nystagmus.” Further  patients should be treated in joint participation of dentist, neurologist and ENT doctor with comprehensive, medical, orthodontic and osteopathic components.

A 2020 paper in the journal Advances in Dentistry & Oral Health (5) also suggested that conservative treatment should be always the first option for the treatment of Costen’s syndrome. Surgical treatment should be considered as the last option. Further the authors noted, few people are good surgical candidates. They researchers do note that “Recently, there has been a great evolution in results, especially in multi-disciplinarity care. Procedures such as occlusal adjustment, orthodontics, electrotherapy, botulinum toxin, laser therapy, pharmacological treatment, acupuncture, cryotherapy, heat therapy, muscle relaxant drugs, chiropractic, psychological treatment must be taken in account.”


Botulinum or BOTOX®  injection is often given in TMD treatments. Research surrounds its use in the lateral pterygoid muscle. A muscle that is responsible for chewing. A 2017 study in the Journal of dentistry (6) suggested moderate success in helping some patients with TMD related disorders, specifically pain from muscle spasm. A 2019 paper in the Journal of stomatology, oral and maxillofacial surgery (7) suggested Botulinum injections would help quality of life issues in patients for 1 to 3 months and would be better utilized as a supportive therapy to control pain. But what if the problems presented in Costen’s syndromes are not originating at the lateral pterygoid muscle, but the spasms of the lateral pterygoid muscle are the result of neck instability?

Electrotherapy or nerve stimulation

The use of electrotherapy or nerve stimulation therapy for TMD disorders has been studied for years. A 2015 paper in the journal Pain Physician (8) wrote: “Patients affected with TMJ syndrome who do not respond to conservative treatments may find a solution in peripheral nerve stimulation, a simple technique with a relatively low level of complications.”

A July 2021 study in the Journal of oral rehabilitation (9) found that low level laser had better short-term efficacy than TENS in the treatment of pain caused by TMD. Better results can be achieved with higher wavelengths.

Sleep and anxiety

In my experience, it isn’t malocclusion, it isn’t TMJ, it is a stress that these people suffer from. We talk to people in our office about reducing stress before sleep. This may reduce their teeth grinding or bruxism. Reducing external stressors is something we do discuss with patients.

A 2021 paper (10) studied “the role of patient’s psychological status as a significant factor influencing the occurrence and complications of TMD (Costen’s Syndrome), as evidenced by an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression in patients with the dysfunction.” The researchers noted that understanding the psychological status and developing treatment “can significantly alleviate the severity of the disease, reduce complications, and shorten the rehabilitation time.”

This was not the first paper to point this out. In 2016 researchers wrote (11) : “Disturbed sleep and psychological distress symptoms are common in TMD patients. Disturbed sleep, anxiety and stress are possible risk indicators for myofascial pain, compared with disc displacement and arthralgia or degenerative joint diseases.”



1 Costen JB. I. A syndrome of ear and sinus symptoms dependent upon disturbed function of the temporomandibular joint. Annals of Otology, Rhinology & Laryngology. 1934 Mar;43(1):1-5. [Google Scholar]
2 Heit T, Derkson C, Bierkos J, Saqqur M. The effect of the physiological rest position of the mandible on cerebral blood flow and physical balance: an observational study. CRANIO®. 2015 Jul 1;33(3):195-205. [Google Scholar]
3 Tardov MV, Stulin ID, Drobysheva NS, Boldin AV, Kunel’skaja NL, Bajbakova EV, Velihanova NR, Kaminskij-Dvorzheckij NA. Comprehensive treatment of Costen syndrome. Zhurnal Nevrologii i Psikhiatrii Imeni SS Korsakova. 2020 Jan 1;120(4):60-4. [Google Scholar]
4 Schwaber MK, Hall JW. Cochleovestibular nerve compression syndrome. I. Clinical features and audiovestibular findings. The Laryngoscope. 1992 Sep;102(9):1020-9. [Google Scholar]
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6 Ataran R, Bahramian A, Jamali Z, Pishahang V, Barzegani HS, Sarbakhsh P, Yazdani J. The role of botulinum toxin A in treatment of temporomandibular joint disorders: a review. Journal of Dentistry. 2017 Sep;18(3):157. [Google Scholar]
7 Villa S, Raoul G, Machuron F, Ferri J, Nicot R. Improvement in quality of life after botulinum toxin injection for temporomandibular disorder. Journal of stomatology, oral and maxillofacial surgery. 2019 Feb 1;120(1):2-6. [Google Scholar]
8 Rodriguez-Lopez MJ, Fernández-Baena M, Aldaya-Valverde C. Management of pain secondary to temporomandibular joint syndrome with peripheral nerve stimulation. Pain Physician. 2015 Mar 1;18(2):E229-36. [Google Scholar]
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10 Anokhina AV, Yakhin KK, Sayfullina AR, Silantyeva EN, Abzalova SL. On the role of psychological disorders in the development of the syndrome of pain dysfunction of the temporomandibular joint. Stomatologiia. 2021 Jan 1;100(3):115-9. [Google Scholar]
11 Lei J, Liu MQ, Fu KY. Disturbed sleep, anxiety and stress are possible risk indicators for temporomandibular disorders with myofascialpain. Beijing da xue xue bao. Yi xue ban= Journal of Peking University. Health sciences. 2016 Aug 1;48(4):692-6. [Google Scholar]



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