Pain in the head and face can be caused by a number of factors, but for nearly 10 million Americans, that pain could be resulting from the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). If you’ve been experiencing pain or discomfort you believe may be originating from your jaw, keep reading.
What is TMJ?
The temporomandibular (tem-puh-roe-man-DIB-u-lur) joint is located at the base of the skull – one on each side – in front of the ear and connects the upper jaw (maxilla) and the lower jaw (mandible). The TMJ is a unique joint that has both a cartilage-lined, horseshoe-shaped hinge and a disc-like structure made of cartilage found between the two bones.
Altogether, the TMJ allows your mouth to open and close, as well as slide the lower jaw down and forward. This range of motions helps you to eat, yawn and even sing.
Ligaments hold the TMJs in place and it takes a surprisingly large number of muscle groups to operate the jaw correctly. Because of these relationships to multiple muscle groups, pinning down the TMJ as the cause of problems can be difficult.
What causes TMJ disorder?
Unfortunately, the exact cause of a TMJ disorder is difficult to discern, especially between individuals. A combination of factors is usually involved – including genetics, arthritis, jaw injury and even stress. People who have a tendency to clench or grind their teeth (bruxism) may also be at risk for triggering TMJ related pain.
And because bruxism is often related to stress, it’s an important factor when diagnosing possible TMJ disorder cases. Strenuous physical tasks or stressful situations can further aggravate existing symptoms. Take steps to reduce your stress levels for your overall health, as well as for alleviating TMJ agitation.
How is TMJ diagnosed?
Diagnosing TMJ disorders can be difficult as there is no standardized method of testing to determine if the TMJ is, in fact, the single source of the patient’s discomfort. Because other conditions, such as toothaches or sinus problems can present with similar symptoms, communication between patient and provider is essential in a correct diagnosis.
In most cases, a clear description of symptoms in addition to a physical examination can help dentists correctly diagnose TMJ. These symptoms include:
- Pain in or around the ear,
- Headaches and neck aches,
- Tenderness of the jaw or jaw muscles,
- Jaw pain or soreness that is more prevalent in the morning or late afternoon,
- Jaw pain when chewing, biting or yawning,
- Aching facial pain,
- Locking of the joint, making it difficult to open or close your mouth,
- Clicking or popping noises when opening the mouth, and/or
- Sensitive teeth when no other dental problems can be found.
It is important to note that sounds your jaw makes, such as clicking or grinding, may be present without pain or discomfort.
What are my treatment options?
In the 1970s and ‘80s, it was common for people to be told that the source of any jaw ache was their TMJ. Physicians and dentists alike believed that to get rid of the pain, the bite needed to be fixed. As a result, many patients underwent all kinds of operations and dental work – including orthodontia, crowns and even the grinding down of teeth in an attempt to alter the bite.
Today, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) advises that the best course of treatment is limiting treatment entirely.
The NIDCR recommends patients who may be suffering from TMJ-related pain to keep at-home care simple: eat soft foods, alternate ice packs and heat, and avoid extreme jaw movements like wide yawning and gum chewing. Additionally, patients are encouraged to take over-the-counter pain medications to provide relief and lower inflammation.
Oral splints and mouth guards are also used to alleviate jaw pain and protect the teeth while you’re asleep. An inexpensive mouthguard can be purchased at most pharmacies and is a good way to determine if you are grinding or clenching your teeth at night. If the guard shows evidence of wear and tear, you may consider talking to your dentist about having a professionally made mouthguard to better protect your teeth.
Where possible, the NIDCR recommends you avoid surgical treatments for TMJ disorders. If a dentist or oral surgeon recommends you for TMJ surgery, seek a second opinion before committing and make sure you fully understand the risks.
When should I see a dentist?
Prevention is often the best course of action when it comes to your overall health, and that’s doubly true for your oral health. Twice annual visits to the dentist and clear communication about possible symptoms or concerns is essential to a healthy mouth.
Remember that TMJ is like any other joint in your body, sometimes you may experience aches and pain, but it will typically go away. Healthy habits – like brushing for two minutes, twice a day, and flossing once a day – keep your mouth in good shape and mitigate a lot of potential problems.
If you suspect you may have TMJ, consult with your dentist or physician to discuss your symptoms and develop a plan of care to get you back to feeling your best.