Have you noticed a popping or a grinding sound when you open your mouth extra wide? Do you have headaches after eating a big meal or chewing gum? Is there persistent soreness in your jaw? If any of those scenarios sound familiar, you may have TMJ.
TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint, but people and healthcare professionals often use these initials to refer to many conditions that result in painful or poorly functioning jaw muscles and joints. These disorders are often grouped together and called TMD, or temporomandibular disorders.
Is TMJ the cause of your symptoms? Read on to learn more about this common condition, including how you can treat it and steps you can take to prevent it.
TMJ problems range in severity from annoying to debilitating. Minor TMJ causes pain when you bite too hard or in the wrong direction. Pain from this form usually goes away fairly quickly. If you notice this type of TMJ, you can avoid it easily, and tips for doing this are provided in a later section.
More severe TMJ issues are chronic and interfere with everyday joint movement. Eating, talking, and even yawning sends jolts of pain and discomfort through the area surrounding the jaw.
Do you suspect you have TMJ? Check your symptoms against these that are common to TMJ sufferers:
- Pain in or around the jaw joint
- Pain or soreness in muscles used for chewing
- Stiffness in jaw muscles
- Limited jaw mobility
- A locked jaw joint
- Clicking, popping, or grinding sounds in the jaw joint
- Upper and lower teeth fitting together differently than normal
Sometimes TMJ manifests itself with other symptoms that seem unrelated to your jaw movements. These other symptoms include:
- Neck pain
- Ringing in the ears
As your jaw joint and the surrounding muscles strain to work properly with TMJ disorders, the strain starts to affect other areas, resulting in these seemingly unrelated symptoms.
If a few of these symptoms line up with yours, ask your dentist to do a TMJ exam. To check for TMJ, your dentist will need you to describe your symptoms and provide a short medical and dental history. Then your dentist will examine your jaw joint and surrounding areas. Your dentist will probably ask you to open and close your jaw a few times to feel how your jaw joint moves.
Causes of TMJ
Causes of TMJ problems vary from person to person. In some cases, the disc in the jaw joint moves out of place. When this happens, the jaw’s mobility is compromised. It becomes difficult to open the jaw to its full extension. This disc can slip out of place even during sleep, causing a rude awakening when you try to eat breakfast and brush your teeth.
For some patients, a different joint-related condition, such as arthritis, affects the jaw joint along with other joints. A strained jaw ligament can also cause TMJ. However, disc and joint issues are less common causes of TMD. Most TMJ problems result when a jaw muscle becomes strained or has spasms.
Whatever the cause of TMD, dentists usually recommend non-invasive treatments first. Sometimes TMJ sufferers try these one by one; other times they’re used in combination. Here are some treatment plans your dentist might suggest to relieve your TMJ symptoms:
Physical therapy – Physical therapy to the jaw joint and muscles promotes normal jaw movement. Carefully stretching the joint, applying warm compresses to the area, and learning to relax jaw muscles can all help relieve pain and strain.
Medication – Anti-inflammatory pain medication can relieve swelling and discomfort in the jaw. For stronger or more persistent TMD, muscle relaxants may be necessary.
Mouthguard splinting – Immobilizing the jaw joint can minimize or prevent reoccurrence of TMJ pain. This is usually accomplished with a mouthguard used as a splint. Your dentist will tell you when and how long to keep it in – some patients need it in only when they’re sleeping, but in stronger cases, they need to keep their mouthguard in throughout the day.
In most cases, these treatments are sufficient for taking care of TMJ. Surgical treatments are seen as a last resort, and they are only recommended for patients whose TMJ originates in the jaw joint, not the jaw muscles. Most likely, you and your dentist can manage your TMJ with the less invasive options described above.
TMJ pain isn’t fun, but luckily you can take steps to prevent it. Apply these techniques if TMJ pain is causing you trouble:
Stop chewing gum – The repetitive chewing action we perform when we chew gum can strain jaw muscles. The same goes for extra chewy foods like licorice or gummy candies. Chewing these foods may overwork your jaw and cause symptoms of TMD.
Reduce stress – Stress isn’t proven to cause TMJ pain, but it can aggravate it. When you’re stressed, you may grind your teeth or clench your jaw. You likely won’t do those actions as frequently if you reduce the stress in your life.
Avoid the common causes of TMJ – If your TMJ pain is minor or infrequent, keep it from coming back by not repeating actions that cause it. This could mean not eating hard foods or taking care not to open your jaw too wide.
If you experience TMJ, take heart knowing it’s a common and easily treatable condition. By watching what you eat and how you move your jaw, you can prevent or at least minimize most TMJ problems. For more advice about taking care of TMJ, ask your dentist at Abougoush Family Dental Care during your next appointment.