Around 12 percent of people in the United States experience TMJ disorders at any one time. Women are affected more often than men, with 9 women to every 1 man experiencing severe pain and restricted jaw movement.
Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options available for TMJ disorders is essential for patients and doctors alike.
What is the temporomandibular joint?
The temporomandibular joint is a complex joint that moves both horizontally and vertically.
The temporomandibular joint is located at the base of the skull.
Commonly referred to as the TMJ, it allows for the movement required for chewing and talking.
The joint connects the mandible, which is the lower jaw, and the temporal bone, which is on the side of the skull.
Since the TMJ allows for movement both up and down as well as from side to side, it is one of the most complex joints in the body. This can make severe TMJ disorders difficult to treat effectively.
What are TMJ disorders?
TMJ disorders are conditions that affect the TMJ specifically. There is a range of possible symptoms, which can cause varying amounts of discomfort.
TMJ disorders are a broad category, and the term includes many possible causes. As such, there are a variety of treatment options available.
Doctors may diagnose TMJ disorders based on a range of symptoms, including persistent pain around the jaw and restricted jaw movement.
Most cases of TMJ disorders will resolve themselves within a short period, usually within a couple of months. Some cases, however, may be ongoing or reoccur.
There are many possible causes of TMJ disorders. Some known causes include:
Grinding the teeth while asleep may lead to TMJ disorders.
- physical injury
- grinding or clenching the teeth during sleep
- autoimmune diseases
- dental surgery
Other causes may be genetic, hormonal, or environmental. For instance, violinists have been noted to experience TMJ disorders at a higher rate than the general population, since their work involves holding an instrument under the jaw. This can cause strain, which leads to TMJ disorders.
It has been observed that women experience TMJ disorders at a higher rate than men, so researchers are currently looking into hormonal causes for TMJ.
While the cause is not precisely understood, researchers hope that investigating the link between the female hormone estrogen and TMJ disorders will prove useful.
There is a range of symptoms linked to TMJ, including:
One of the most obvious symptoms of a TMJ disorder is pain that is felt when moving the jaw. However, other symptoms that may occur with a TMJ disorder include headaches or migraines, neck ache or backache, and earaches or pain around the ear that spreads to the cheeks.
If the pain is not located near to the jaw, a doctor will often look for other symptoms before diagnosing a TMJ disorder.
A common but often painless symptom is an unusual popping, clicking, or even grinding noise that can occur while eating, talking, or simply opening the mouth.
Noises that occur when moving the jaw are not always a symptom of TMJ disorders. In fact, jaw noises are quite common. It is only when the sounds occur alongside pain or limited movement of the jaw that medical advice may be needed.
Buzzing, ringing, or numbness in the ears can occur alongside earaches, and these symptoms can also be associated with TMJ disorders.
Limited movement that prevents the mouth from being opened fully or the jaw from being moved in certain directions can cause severe discomfort in everyday life.
There are a variety of treatment options available.
Self-care and lifestyle changes
In many cases, people can successfully treat TMJ disorders at home. Self-care and lifestyle changes may be enough to handle mild-to-moderate symptoms.
Recommended self-care treatments may involve reducing movement of the jaw. When rest is recommended, this could involve:
- avoiding chewing gum
- eating only soft foods
- avoiding clenching or tensing the jaw
On the other hand, gentle exercises may be recommended, such as stretching the jaw slightly. Massaging the affected muscles around the jaw may also help.
A combination of both rest and gentle exercise may be recommended. A healthcare professional can advise on the most appropriate exercises to follow, as well as other lifestyle changes that could ease TMJ disorder symptoms.
Applying ice or moist heat can help reduce symptoms.
Treating existing conditions
Treatment may include a steroid injection to reduce pain and swelling.
For TMJ disorders that are caused by pre-existing conditions, more specific treatment options may be available.
For example, if the TMJ disorder is caused by tooth grinding or clenching during sleep, a mouth guard may help to ease the symptoms. A dentist can provide a mouth guard where appropriate.
In cases where TMJ disorders are caused by degenerative conditions, such as osteoarthritis, steroid injections may be a recommended treatment option.
The steroid, which is injected into the joint itself, will help to ease swelling, reducing pain and other symptoms. In many cases, a reduction of pain is experienced within a week.
In some cases, an injection may resolve the symptoms of TMJ disorders permanently, and in others, it may be a temporary fix.
Short-term over-the-counter pain medications can reduce discomfort.
In more extreme cases of TMJ disorder, surgery may be the most efficient treatment for pain and restricted movement.
A TMJ disorder can be caused by damage to the joint itself, to the muscles surrounding the jaw, or by another condition. Surgery is only recommended when the actual joint has something wrong with it.
In very severe cases of TMJ disorders, where movement of the jaw is extremely restricted, and symptoms are long-lasting, the joint may need to be replaced. This treatment is rarely required, however.
People should always seek professional medical advice about any treatment, even if the treatment involves self-care and basic lifestyle changes.
TMJ disorders are often not serious and will pass after a couple of months. Symptoms are frequently mild and tend to cause only minimal inconvenience.
In some cases, however, TMJ disorders will be serious and long-lasting. When the condition lowers quality of life, diagnosis and treatment must be sought as soon as possible to manage or resolve the condition.
Whether the condition is mild or serious, professional advice is always essential for treating TMJ disorders.