What is TMJ disorder?

October 06, 2015

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Your dental health isn't confined to just your mouth. That's because all your facial features work together to help you talk, chew, yawn, bite and swallow. In fact, professionals in dental health services often hear patient concerns about jaw stiffness or soreness and even ear pain. When these ailments arise, they are usually the result of a complication with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Referred to as TMJ disorders, these conditions cause pain and discomfort in the jaw muscles and joints and should be addressed with your dental health professional.

"The TMJ makes the jaw's movements possible."

Understanding the jaw structure
The temporomandibular joint connects the lower jaw to the bone on the side of the head, medically coined the mandible and temporal bone, respectively.1 With the help of a shock-absorbing disc, mandible condyle, cartilage and masseter muscle, the TMJ acts as a sliding hinge and makes the jaw's forward, backward and side-to-side movements possible. TMJ disorders occur when this joint isn't functioning properly.

Signs of a TMJ disorder
All humans have the temporomandibular joint, but not everyone suffers from TMJ disorder symptoms. So how do you know if there's something wrong with your TMJ? Look for the signs:

  • Jaw pain or tenderness.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Chronic ear aches.
  • Locking jaw joint or limited jaw mobility.
  • Difficulty or discomfort with chewing.
  • Clicking or popping sound when opening or closing mouth.
  • Grating sensation upon jaw movement.

Problems such as these may occur from temporary situations such as after a bout of night-time teeth grinding, otherwise known as bruxism, or from mindlessly chewing on the end of your pencil. As such, short-term treatment options, including over-the-counter pain relievers or application of heat or ice on the jaw, may prove beneficial. However, some symptoms of TMJ disorders won't go away with at-home remedies.

Find a dentist and make an appointment if you experience pain after a physical impact to the face, persistent discomfort or tenderness in facial muscles and joints, a suddenly misaligned bite or you are unable to completely close or open your mouth.2 You can also bring up jaw concerns during your biannual dental exam. The doctor can make a proper diagnosis of your condition so you can get started on the right treatment plan.

Is a TMJ disorder the problem?
Your dentist must first determine whether your symptoms are a result of a TMJ disorder before strategizing a treatment. He or she will begin by listening to your symptoms. As such, it's important that you provide your dental professional with adequate and detailed information. For example, prepare to provide answers about when you first experienced symptoms, when and how often they occur, triggers (such as biting or yawning) and current lifestyle stresses.

Dental assistant looking at computer.
Communicate your symptoms to your dental health team.

Additionally, the dentist will review your medical history and physically and visually examine important facial areas. This may involve taking X-rays or even a computerized tomography (CT) scan. If your dental professional notices that cartilage has worn, the disk has eroded or your joint is damaged, you may have a TMJ disorder.

Treatment options
There is no one-size-fits-all cure or cause for TMJ disorders, and there are a variety of treatment options. As with most oral conditions, TMJ disorders are managed in phases. That is, your dentist will likely opt for more conservative treatments prior to considering drastic measurements, such as oral surgery. For example, he or she may suggest you eliminate muscle spasms by applying moist heat to the jaw or take over-the-counter pain medications.3

If teeth grinding or clenching is at play, you may benefit from wearing a bite plate or splint to reduce the resulting pain and discomfort. However, bruxism is often caused by stress, so your dentist may recommend relaxation techniques to beat the problem at its true source.

Finally, if these options don't work, your dental professional may refer you to a TMJ specialist, who can customize a care plan to manage your disorder. This may include the use of muscle relaxants, sedatives, prescription pain relievers and physical therapy. Though typically a last resort, surgery may be used to correct severe TMJ disorders.

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1. "TMJ disorders," National Institutes of Health. http://www.nidcr.nih.gov/oralhealth/Topics/TMJ/TMJDisorders.htm

2. "TMJ disorders," Mayo Clinic Staff. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tmj/basics/definition/con-20043566

3. "What Is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)?" Colgate. http://www.colgate.com/en/us/oc/oral-health/conditions/temporomandibular-disorder/article/what-is-temporomandibular-joint-disorder-tmj

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