Unexplained jaw tightness, facial pain, and headaches can diminish a person’s quality of life. We hear complaints of these and other symptoms all the time. Patients assume that their pain is the result of a dental problem. In fact, it is often caused by inflammation or misalignment in the temporomandibular joints. We genuinely care about our patients and provide gentle, effective treatment that alleviates TMJ pain.
What is TMJ?
TMJ is the term used to describe symptomatic temporomandibular joints. These joints, also referred to as the TMJ, sit at each side of the head. They connect the lower jaw (mandible) to the skull and enable it to achieve various movements, such as sliding open and closed. The temporomandibular joints are at work, along with muscles and ligaments, in every action we do with our mouths. Each has a ball-and-socket structure, with cushiony discs that help the jaw glide smoothly in its movements. Stress on the joint can degrade or inflame the discs or the muscles and ligament around the area, resulting in pain.
It is estimated that approximately 12% of the population experiences TMJ at some point. Women are more likely to develop symptoms than men, and most patients are between the ages of 20 and 40. Physical factors that may cause stress on the temporomandibular joints include:
- Bruxism, grinding or clenching your teeth
- Injury to your jaw, neck, or head
- Misaligned teeth
- Tight facial and jaw muscles
Symptoms of TMJ
Temporomandibular joint disorder is not medically concerning, but it is a condition that can cause chronic symptoms. These can range from mild to severe, affecting one’s daily life. Specific TMJ symptoms include:
- Tenderness in the jaw muscles
- Pain in the jaw or face when chewing or yawning
- Sounds of clicking or popping when moving the jaw
- Ear pain
- Stiffness in the jaw joints that make it difficult to open and close the mouth
- Locking of the jaw in one position, “lockjaw”
How is the condition diagnosed?
A complete consultation and evaluation are needed to determine the cause of jaw pain and other symptoms. Your dentist will take a full history of your symptoms, including frequency and severity. X Rays may be taken to observe the jaw joints and other dental structures. Finally a complete dental checkup evaluates the jaw for tenderness, clicking, popping, and stiffness.
Treatment options for TMJ
There are several ways to address TMJ pain. Before moving on to more involved treatment, patients may be advised to try the following in an effort to minimize inflammation and stress on the joints:
- Eat softer foods for a short time
- Avoid chewing gum and biting on hard objects like pen caps
- Avoid using teeth to open packages
- Ease pain and stiffness using a heating pad
- Take an anti-inflammatory medication as needed
Conservative remedies may work in some instances of TMJ pain. However, some patients need professional treatment to achieve satisfactory improvement. This, too, is usually conservative. Studies have shown that TMJ pain is often associated with bruxism, clenching and grinding the teeth when sleeping. To reduce the force of this habit on the temporomandibular joints, a dentist can fabricate a custom-fit mouthguard for the upper and lower arches.
What can happen if TMJ goes untreated?
The symptoms of TMJ may not resolve spontaneously, especially when they are related to ongoing dental stress rather than overuse. This disorder can interfere with daily life by causing chronic pain, even frequent migraine headaches or ringing in the ears. TMJ can disrupt sleep and may lead to sleep apnea or other sleep-related conditions. Due to the relationship between TMJ disorder and bruxism, there is also a concern about excessive and premature wear-and-tear on the teeth. Proper treatment for TMJ can prevent these unwanted consequences.
How to prevent TMJ from recurring
In addition to physical factors, TMJ pain may result from lifestyle factors such as excessive gum chewing, poor posture, diet, and stress. Chewing gum constantly throughout the day overworks the jaw, slouching places excess stress on the neck and jaw, and chewing on hard foods makes the jaw and surrounding muscles work harder. That said, stress is the most significant lifestyle factor associated with TMJ. Knowing this, you can implement proper stress-management strategies to help you avoid clenching and grinding your teeth. Suggestions include engaging in relaxing activities like walking, coloring, or gardening. It is also helpful to notice when the jaw is tight and clenched and work on maintaining a more relaxed posture.