What is TMJ Disorder?
TMJ refers to the temporomandibular joint, which connects your mandible (lower jawbone) to the temporal bone of the skull in front of the ear. One of the joints of the body that gets the most use, the TMJ enables your upper jaw to close on the lower jaw. Some facial muscles that help you to chew are also connected to the mandible.
A TMJ disorder occurs when the jaw muscles and joints stop working properly – a problem that can arise if your teeth are misaligned, for example. This can result in pain in the following areas:
- One or both sides of the jaw.
Also known as TMD (temporomandibular disorder) or TMJ syndrome, TMJ disorder is fairly common, affecting an estimated 20 to 30 percent of the adult population to some degree. TMJ disorders are most prevalent among those aged 20 to 40 – affecting more women than men – although teens have been known to develop the problem.
As well as jaw and other facial pain, TMJ disorder can result in eating difficulties. It’s the second leading cause of facial pain after dental problems such as toothache. Medics regard TMJ disorder as a group of symptoms that occur together, as opposed to a single condition, and it’s thought to be caused by multiple factors.
In some cases, a TMJ disorder may resolve itself without medical intervention or with home remedies, but if the problem persists, severe symptoms can significantly reduce the quality of life.
What Causes TMJ Disorders?
The temporomandibular joint on each side of the jaw acts like a sliding hinge to connect the jaw bone to the skull. Bone cartilage and small shock-absorbing disks normally keep your jaw movement smooth. But when something goes wrong with this function, it can result in TMJ pain.
TMJ disorders can occur as a result of:
- Disk erosion or shifting out of place.
- Cartilage damage – through arthritis, for instance.
- Joint damage caused by impact.
However, the exact cause of an individual’s TMJ disorder is often difficult to pinpoint. It may be due to a combination of issues, including:
- Bruxism (habitual teeth clenching or grinding).
- Physical injury.
- Connective tissue disease.
- Teeth misalignment.
- Emotional stress.
- Gum chewing.
Symptoms of TMJ Disorder
The main symptom of a TMJ disorder is pain, which can be mistaken for other issues. TMJ problems can result in:
- Muscle pain in the face, neck or shoulders.
- Discomfort when eating.
- Toothache-type pain.
- Pain when yawning.
- Muscle spasms in the jaw.
Other signs of TMJ disorder include:
- Blurred vision.
- Ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
- Facial swelling.
- Locking of the jaw joint.
- Clicking sounds or a grating sensation.
- Popping sounds in your ears.
How is TMJ Disorder Diagnosed?
There’s no specific test to diagnose TMJ disorder, and there are so many symptoms that it’s difficult to know whether you have this syndrome or another underlying problem. Medical conditions unrelated to TMJ disorder may cause pain in the jaw area. For instance, discomfort associated with angina can radiate from the chest to your jaw area.
Primary care physicians who suspect a patient has a TMJ disorder may order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan to rule out other medical problems or get their diagnosis confirmed by referring the patient to one of the following:
- An oral and maxillofacial specialist.
- An ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.
- A dentist specializing in jaw issues.
A dentist experienced in TMJ problems can use advanced technology to analyze your bite function and help you get a proper diagnosis.
For instance, misaligned or missing teeth can force your jaw out of position. This places more strain on your jaw muscles, which can pull the cushioning disk of the jaw joint out of position, causing bones to rub against each other – a painful condition that can cause inflammation and damage the joint.
How is TMJ Disorder Treated?
In most cases, TMJ disorders1 can be treated with non-invasive procedures. Surgery is usually the last resort. Various treatments can alleviate the symptoms of TMJ disorders significantly. Your dentist may recommend one or more of the following:
- Fitting a custom-made oral appliance like a dental splint or bite guard to stop your upper and lower teeth from grinding together.
- Replacing missing teeth.
- Orthodontic treatment to move teeth back into proper position.
- Placing crowns or veneers on your teeth.
- Botox2 injections to relax the jaw muscles.
- Myofunctional therapy to fix problems with facial muscles.
- Alleviating muscle spasm with medications such as aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Learning relaxation techniques to help lessen tension in the jaw.
- Physical therapy to strengthen jaw muscles and improve flexibility and range of motion.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy – a form of talking therapy often used to ease anxiety.
- Prescription medication.
Prescription drugs used to treat TMJ disorder include:
- Muscle relaxants such as metaxalone (Skelaxin).
- Anti-inflammatory drugs like meloxicam (Mobic).
- Nerve pain drugs like topiramate (Topamax).
- Opiate pain medication such as Vicodin.
- Steroid injections.
- Sleep medication.
Surgery for TMJ Disorders
Surgery can be used to remedy a TMJ disorder in rare cases when non-invasive treatments have failed to reduce the severity of symptoms. For a minority of patients, surgery may be the only solution to restore full function to their temporomandibular joint.
TMJ surgery may be recommended if:
- You continually experience intense pain when opening or closing your mouth.
- You can’t fully open or close your mouth.
- You have difficulties eating and drinking because of jaw immobility or discomfort.
- Your condition is getting progressively worse despite nonsurgical treatments.
Home Remedies for TMJ Disorder
Various home remedies may help to relieve the symptoms of TMJ disorder, including:
- Over-the-counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen.
- Ice packs.
- Eating more soft foods.
- Not chewing gum.
- Massaging your jaw and neck.
Wearing proper safety equipment can also protect your jaw from damage while exercising, working, or playing sports.
Relaxation aids and techniques to reduce stress can also be effective in alleviating TMJ disorder. These include:
- Essential oils such as lavender and chamomile.
- Controlled-breathing exercises.
- Yoga exercises focused on relieving jaw tension.
Relieving Pain and Stabilizing the Jaw
Your temporomandibular joints are complex structures containing bones, nerves, tendons, and muscles that have to withstand heavy usage – so there’s a lot that can potentially go wrong, and misaligned teeth, in particular, can throw the whole system out of kilter.
While precise causes of TMJ disorder are still being debated, the condition is treatable, and your dentist can carry out a thorough assessment of your specific TMJ problems and determine the best treatment plan to relieve your pain and stabilize your jaw.