TMJ is short for temporomandibular joint. There’s one on each side of your face below your ears and these joints attach your jaw to the bottom of your skull allowing you to open and close your mouth.
What people generally call TMJ is actually TMD – temporomandibular DISEASE. It’s not uncommon, in fact nearly 15% of adults aged 20 to 40 years of age have it. It happens more in women than in men and it is the second most frequent cause of orofacial pain (the first is dental pain caused by things like cavities, cracked teeth, etc.)
TMD can be caused by a number of things. An injury to the jaw, teeth grinding or clenching, improper jaw alignment…even arthritis. If you are experiencing pain in one or both sides of your jaw joint, have earaches or discomfort when you chew, experience neck or stiff jaw muscles, you may have TMD. It’s usually easily diagnosed. After listening to your symptoms, a dentist will feel for grinding/clicking or rubbing in the jaw area, measure the flexibility of the mouth to open and shut, look for inflammation in the jaw area and maybe take an xray. These easy and pain-free procedures can be all that is needed to provide an accurate assessment. (And, by the way: the simple clicking and/or popping that you hear when you open and close your mouth is unlikely TMD… unless it is accompanied by pain.)
Dr. Jacqueline Schafer of Colorado Healthy Smiles in Lafayette, Colorado is an expert in TMJ treatment and advises that if your symptoms are tolerable, you can try moist heat or cold packs in the pain area, take an over the counter anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs) to relieve pain and swelling, and eat soft foods until the problem subsides. But, if the symptoms persist, it’s time to take action.
“Often a patient will complain of dizziness, earaches or an inability to open their mouth fully. This is when we get more aggressive.”, says Dr. Schafer “First, we discuss their lifestyle. We will talk about ways to lower their stress levels since stress leads many to hold tension in this area, discuss teeth grinding and perhaps fit you with a plastic mouth guard you wear at night. In more severe cases we will weigh the options of straightening or “balancing” teeth using dental devices like Invisalign or crowns to reshape your bite. We can even explore filing your teeth to get proper mouth closure. There’s a lot we could try before I’d ever recommend joint surgery.”
Most oral professionals agree that if the opening of the mouth is not completely restricted and/or the joint is non-functional, it is best to utilize non-invasive therapies for this disorder.
Simple self-care practices can usually help. We’ve already discussed stress and how it can contribute to TMJ issues, lifting heavy objects and strenuous excise can also cause you to clench and/or grind your teeth together (call bruxism) leading to further TMJ irritation. And simple motions – like biting your fingernails or chewing gum can cause jaw pain in those with TMD, so watch out for those problematic habits you might have.
Other non-invasive therapies include chiropractic care. By alleviating tension in the spine it can reduce the pressure on certain nerves, which may ease the pain associated with TMJ.
There is more good news other than non-invasive therapies for TMD; for most, the discomfort will eventually go away on its own. But, if you can visit your dentist or chiropractor and get non-invasive, quick relief, why would you wait it out?
And know this; some people believe orthodontic treatments like braces can lead to TMJ problems but there is no medical evidence that this is true.
So chew on this information awhile and if you have pain in your jaw joint, know
that relief could be simple…and only a phone call away!