Osteoarthritis is one disorder that can affect the TMJ. This joint connects the jaw to the skull. People with TMJ osteoarthritis may develop damage to the hard and soft tissues of one or both sides of the jaw.

TMJ disorders are the second most common musculoskeletal disorder. They affect about 5–12% of the worldwide population. TMJ osteoarthritis may cause changes in the shape and functionality of the jaw, making daily activities, such as eating, painful.

Treatment typically involves managing symptoms using conservative methods. Doctors may reserve surgery for more severe cases or when other treatment options are ineffective.

A person’s concerns about their quality of life can help doctors direct them toward the best treatment option.

This article reviews the symptoms and causes of TMJ osteoarthritis, its risk factors, and how doctors diagnose and treat it.

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People with this condition may not experience every symptom of TMJ osteoarthritis at the same time. Severity may vary from person to person.

TMJ osteoarthritis symptoms may include:

  • facial pain
  • clicking noise when moving the jaw
  • intermittent locking of the jaw
  • pain when chewing
  • pain increasing over time and over the years
  • headache
  • jaw muscle soreness
  • pain when opening and closing the mouth
  • limitation of jaw movement

Learn whether there is a link between TMJ and wisdom teeth.

TMJ osteoarthritis may develop in people due to many factors. These may include:

  • trauma
  • wearing out the jaw cartilage due to clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
  • oral infections, such as periodontal disease
  • hereditary atypical jaw formations
  • imbalance in oral bacteria

Other conditions, such as stress or chronic pain, may increase the risk of developing TMJ osteoarthritis. People tend to grind or clench their jaw more frequently when stressed or in pain.

Learn more about the causes of TMJ disorders.

The risk for osteoarthritis typically increases with age. However, anyone can still develop it.

Other risk factors can include:

  • being female
  • having other autoimmune conditions
  • having a genetic predisposition

A 2021 review found that people with certain anatomical features may have a higher risk of developing TMJ osteoarthritis. These features may include:

  • Dental malocclusion: An atypical alignment of the teeth can increase the risk of TMJ osteoarthritis.
  • Facial morphology: People with a protrusion of the upper jaw, known as skeletal class II, have a higher risk of developing TMJ osteoarthritis.
  • Bruxism: People who regularly clench their jaw or grind their teeth while sleeping put more stress on their jaw. This can wear out the cartilage in the joint over the years and increase the risk of the onset of TMJ osteoarthritis.

Doctors typically diagnose TMJ osteoarthritis by performing a physical exam and checking a person’s medical history.

Imaging tests may also be beneficial to assess cartilage loss or damage to the tissues in the jaw.

The imaging tests for TMJ osteoarthritis may include the following:

Learn more about how arthritis looks on an MRI scan.

The treatment for TMJ osteoarthritis may vary depending on a person’s symptoms. The purpose of treatment is to help reduce discomfort and prevent the progression of the disease.

First-line treatment

The first-line treatments for TMJ osteoarthritis usually aim to:

  • reduce the inflammatory process in the jaw
  • relieve pain
  • prevent further changes in the jaw structure
  • preserve jaw functionality

Medications for TMJ osteoarthritis may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroid injections directly into the joint. These medications help reduce inflammation and pain in the jaw. Doctors may reserve steroid injections for people who did not get relief from NSAIDs.

A treatment plan may be helpful to prevent further joint damage and help tissue regeneration. A person can work with a healthcare professional to develop such a plan.

Some evidence suggests that injections of the following products might improve symptoms of TMJ osteoarthritis:

  • platelet-rich plasma
  • hyaluronic acid
  • mesenchymal stem cells

However, the evidence is not strong for these options. More research into their effectiveness is necessary.

Other types of treatment

Physical therapy may also play an essential role in managing TMJ osteoarthritis.

Specific muscle exercises may help strengthen the jaw muscles and reduce the joint load during chewing. People with TMJ osteoarthritis can also perform muscle self-massages to stimulate blood flow and improve inflammation.

Some people may benefit from using a mouthguard, also called a night guard or splint. This dental device covers most or all of the upper and lower teeth. It can relieve pressure on the TMJ joint.

Surgery may be reserved for more severe cases.

Learn more about ways to manage pain associated with TMJ disorders.

Here are some common questions about TMJ osteoarthritis:

Is TMJ osteoarthritis curable?

There are various treatment options for managing TMJ osteoarthritis and possibly improving the condition.

That said, a lot of the studies in this area do not demonstrate the long-term effects of different treatment types. In many studies, researchers have not followed up with participants after a longer period.

Generally, benefits may not persist, including for surgery. This makes the decision for surgery complex. A surgeon can advise on the possible effects of surgery and whether it is a viable option.

Is TMJ the same as osteoarthritis?

TMJ is a type of osteoarthritis. While TMJ involves the jaw, osteoarthritis can affect any part of the body.

What are the stages of TMJ osteoarthritis?

TMJ osteoarthritis has three phases. The entire progression of this condition typically takes about 5 years. The phases include:

  • Early phase: This usually takes approximately 2–4 years. People may not experience symptoms. Onset usually occurs during this phase.
  • Intermediate phase: This lasts from 6 months to 1 year. During this phase, the joint sustains damage.
  • Late phase: This typically lasts about 6 months and then stabilizes. The degeneration of the joint eventually stops and stabilizes.

TMJ osteoarthritis is a condition involving the jaw joint that can cause pain and stiffness. People with this condition may experience jaw locking and difficulties opening and closing their mouths.

Various treatments might help people manage symptoms and prevent disease progression. Anti-inflammatory medications, injections, and physiotherapy are some potential treatment options people can consider with their doctor.