Have you noticed your jaw making a popping or clicking sound? Does it hurt to open your mouth widely at the dentist? Or maybe it’s sore when taking a large bite of something. If so, chances are good that you could be experiencing a TMJ disorder.
Temporomandibular disorders (TMD, often called TMJ) are very common, affecting an estimated 10 million Americans. Learn more about this uncomfortable jaw condition and the many ways it can be treated.
What is the temporomandibular joint (TMJ)?
TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. You have two, one on each side of your face, just in front of your ears. These joints serve as the connection between your jaw and your skull, as well as the muscles in your face, enabling you to do everyday things like talk and chew.
What is TMD?
TMD (temporomandibular disorder) is a medical term used to include a wide range of conditions characterized by pain and/or dysfunction of the temporomandibular joints and associated structures (such as the chewing muscles, tendons and ligaments). But often the term “TMJ” is used to describe any problem with that particular joint.
TMJ can be painful for some people, while for others the bigger problem is loss of jaw functionality. In some cases TMJ doesn’t require any treatment interventions, but the condition can still be bothersome – interfering with everyday activities like talking, eating or even sleeping.
Signs of TMJ disorders
While each person is different, there are some telltale symptoms of TMJ disorders to look out for, including:
- Jaw pain or facial soreness
- Difficulty opening mouth widely
- Pain when chewing
- Clicking or popping sounds
- Jaw locking open or closed
- Jaw misalignment (feeling of jaw coming unhinged)
- Bite feeling off or misaligned
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Tooth pain
- Swelling along sides of face
- Neck or shoulder pain
What causes TMJ disorders?
TMJ disorders can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it runs in the family, while other times it’s related to your environment and the habits you have. For example, if you chew gum after every meal or clench your jaw when you’re anxious.
Here are some of the most common causes for TMJ:
- Grinding or clenching your teeth
- Stress and anxiety causing clenching or muscle tension
- Sports injuries leading to jaw misalignment
- Anatomical irregularities of the jaw
How is TMJ diagnosed?
Dentists or primary care doctors typically diagnose TMJ disorders by listening to your symptoms and doing a physical examination. Frequently dentists discover and diagnose TMJ dysfunction during a regular dental checkup.
During the physical exam, the clinician will watch you opening and closing your mouth. This helps them observe your jaw’s range of motion and look for any misalignment. They will also press their fingers to your face looking for any tender areas. And, of course, your dentist will take a look inside your mouth. If you’re someone who clenches or grinds your teeth, there can be signs of wear or damage on your teeth consistent with the habit.
Additionally, dentists may order an X-ray to look more closely at the structure of your bones and temporomandibular joints, or an MRI to examine the soft tissues around the joints and any areas of swelling.
After diagnosis, your dentist will recommend the best treatment options for you. They may refer you to other specialists if they think it’s needed, including an oral maxillofacial surgeon, in rare cases.
How can TMJ disorders be treated?
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor or dentist may recommend a variety of treatment options.
Lifestyle changes and home remedies for TMD
For nearly everyone with TMD, it’s important to make adjustments to your everyday life to lessen the strain on your jaw joints and allow them to heal and align properly. Here are some home remedies that doctors and dentists often recommend before, or in addition to, other treatment methods to help improve symptoms.
- Eat softer foods
- Avoid chewing gum
- Avoid certain jaw movements (like wide yawns or resting your chin on your hand for long periods)
- Learn relaxation or facial stretching techniques (your doctor or dentist can show you relaxation techniques and stretches)
- Apply heat/cold to sore or swollen areas (Tip: Apply an ice pack to the area for 10 minutes to treat pain or swelling. Afterward, do some facial stretches, then apply a warm compress to the area to relax the muscles. Do this as often as needed.)
- Focus on not clenching or grinding your teeth (Tip: To improve the tendency, make an “N” sound. This puts the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, behind your front teeth, making it difficult to grind or clench. Practicing this can form a positive habit that counteracts the urge to clench.)
Wearing a splint or nightguard
For people who clench or grind their teeth during their sleep, wearing a splint can be a game changer. These plastic mouthpieces can be custom made or bought as a standard size. They fit over your teeth and provide a stable surface for your upper and lower teeth to close on to improve alignment, reduce pressure and prevent tooth damage. Your clinician can help you figure out what will work best for you.
Wearing a mouthguard while playing sports
Dentists – and sports trainers and coaches – often recommend that athletes wear a mouthguard to protect their teeth and jaw from sports injuries. An impact to the face can jostle your jaw and joints, leading to misalignment or more severe injury.
Doctors and dentists may recommend taking OTC medicines like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for occasional relief from pain and swelling. They may also prescribe anti-inflammatories, low doses of antidepressants or muscle relaxers to help ease the muscle tension in your jaw, temple, neck and shoulders. It’s important to follow all use recommendations for medications.
When people have a more severe case, or if they don’t see improvement with initial treatment methods, they may be referred to a physical therapist. Physical therapists focus on evaluating the overall head and neck musculoskeletal system and providing treatment recommendations tailored to each individual patient.
Things that can make TMJ worse
Some things we do can make TMJ worse. To prevent worsening symptoms, or avoid developing TMJ in the first place, try to avoid:
- Grinding or clenching your teeth
- Chewing gum (or no more than 15 minutes per day)
- Opening your mouth widely (such as yawning widely or biting into things like apples or tall sandwiches)
When to see a doctor or dentist about TMJ
Experiencing a twinge of jaw pain every now and then is a normal part of life. Like when you take a bigger bite than you had planned. But if you’re noticing persistent symptoms of pain, difficulty opening or closing your mouth, or difficulty while talking or eating, it’s time to bring it up to your doctor or dentist.
Your primary care doctor or your general dentist is a great person to ask as a first step. You probably see them at least once per year, and they can help you understand what you’re experiencing. They may recommend remedies to improve your symptoms, or they may refer you to an orofacial pain specialist for more specialized TMD treatment.