The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw, called the mandible, to the bone at the side of the head – the temporal bone. If you place your fingers just in front of your ears and open your mouth, you can feel them. The combination of hinge and sliding motions is what gives us the ability to talk. chew, whistle, yawn, and do the many things we are able to do with our jaw and mouth. It also makes this joint among the most complicated in the body.
Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, commonly called “TMJ,” are a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement. For most people, experiencing pain in the area of the jaw joint or muscles does not signal a serious issue.
Typically, any discomfort from these conditions is occasional and temporary, and can occur in cycles. The pain eventually goes away with little or no treatment. Some people, however, develop significant, long-term symptoms. TMJ symptoms can also arise as a result of Bruxism, or the excessive clenching or grinding of teeth.
Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
- Pain or tenderness in the face, jaw or neck. This pain often radiates, meaning it starts from one point and seems to move outward.
- Stiffness in the muscles in the jaw, either on one or both sides
- “Locking” of the jaw, or difficulty with opening or closing the jaw either fully or partially
- Clicking or popping in the jaw that feels painful, or the sensation of grinding inside the jaw
- Malocclusion, or a change in the way the upper and lower jaws align with each other
- Occur in conjunction with bruxism and the factors that can contribute to teeth grinding or clenching
Treatment for TMJ Disorders
There are a variety of options for treating and relieving the symptoms of TMJ issues. For more severe cases, your dentist may refer you to a specialist, or to your regular physician to rule out any other potential causes. A few examples of treatment options your dentist may recommend include:
- Self-care practices you can do at home – including applying heat or ice packs, avoiding over-use of the jaw, practicing relaxation techniques, and eating soft foods until the discomfort subsides
- Over the counter or prescription medications including anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxers to relieve pain and symptoms
- Bite guard (a custom fitted dental appliance) that stabilizes the jaw
Other, permanent treatments such as surgery and implants may be considered if needed, and after all other self-care and conservative treatment options have been exhausted. The vast majority of the time, TMJ disorders are cyclical and sometimes even predictable. Many people are able to sense when symptoms may appear or worsen, and proactively apply self-care methods.