Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)

What is TMJ?

Temporomandibular joint disorders, more commonly abbreviated as TMJ, are a group of diseases that cause pain to the temporomandibular joint. This is the joint found on each side of the head formed where the mandible (lower jawbone) is attached to the skull. A normal-functioning jaw functions to let us eat, talk and open our mouths properly. TMJ affects the jaws by causing impairment, pain and tenderness and occasionally an uncomfortable popping sound.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, over 10 million Americans are affected with TMJ. Also, their data shows more women are affected than men. Left untreated, this condition may cause chronic facial pain and headaches.

What causes TMJ?

In most cases, the cause for TMJ remains unknown. However, trauma to the jaws has been known to cause TMJ. Other associated factors in TMJ include:

  • Bad bite
  • Bruxism (teeth grinding)
  • Stress
  • Poor posture
  • Insomnia
  • Arthritis, fractures and dislocations

What are the symptoms of TMJ?

Although varied, these are the common symptoms of TMJ:

  • Discomfort on jaw movement
  • Pain and tenderness
  • Earache
  • Headache
  • Jaw muscle stiffness
  • Limited or impaired movement of the jaws
  • Locking of the jaws
  • Painful clicking, popping or grating in the jaw joint with movement
  • Malocclusion of the teeth

When should I seek professional help?

There's no absolute rule to seeing your dentist. However, if the pain is intolerable or if you're having difficulty eating or performing your normal functions (for example talking) then it's time for you to head to your dentist.

A visit to your dentist will include:

  • Checking for poor bite alignment
  • Determining location of tenderness
  • Examining jaw movement such as sliding the jaw from side to side
  • Dental X-rays

How do I get treated?

In most cases, TMJ will resolve on its own even without treatment. If you have this condition, simple steps will address many of the discomforts you may feel. This includes:

  • Eating soft foods
  • Applying ice packs to the jaws
  • Avoiding jaw movements that might aggravate the symptoms like wide yawning, gum chewing, prolonged talking, yelling and singing
  • Stress-reduction techniques
  • Exercising jaw muscles
  • Massaging the jaws
  • Pain medicines

If you're thinking of taking pain medications, you can try taking some over-the-counter drugs for a short period of time. This includes:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®),
  • Naproxen (Aleve®, Naprosyn®)

In many cases, this may not be enough. You should ask your doctor or dentist about other drugs, including muscle relaxants, antidepressants and steroids.In situations where it might be helpful, your dentist may employ mouth guards or bite guards, also called splints or appliances.

For some, TMJ becomes a long-term problem.