The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the lower jaw to the skull. A temporomandibular disorder (TMD) may cause tinnitus, a high pitched ringing sound in the ears.

The TMJs sit on either side of the face in front of the ears. They allow a person’s jaw to open and close and move side to side, which is necessary for speaking and eating.

A range of disorders can affect the TMJ and the muscles and ligaments around it. In some cases, TMDs may lead to tinnitus, as the TMJ and connecting tissues are closely connected to the ears.

This article discusses further details of tinnitus and TMDs, how they connect, what tinnitus associated with TMDs may sound like, and treatment and recovery for TMJ tinnitus.

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Tinnitus is a condition that causes a high pitched ringing, buzzing, or other sound in a person’s ears. Usually, only the person affected by tinnitus can hear the sound from the structures inside the ear.

There is no evidence to suggest that tinnitus caused by TMDs sounds different from any other type. However, the sounds that people with tinnitus hear can vary.

Sounds a person with tinnitus may hear include:

  • high pitched ringing
  • buzzing
  • rushing or roaring
  • hissing
  • whistling

What is TMJ?

While some people may use “TMJ” to refer to disorders affecting the joint, this term refers to the joint itself. TMDs are a range of disorders affecting this part of the body.

Over 30 disorders can affect the TMJ, causing various symptoms, including pain, difficulty moving the jaw, and tinnitus.

TMDs are common, with 11 to 12 million adults in the United States experiencing TMJ pain. Women are around twice as likely to experience TMDs as men.

What is tinnitus?

Tinnitus refers to the presence of a sound that, most often, only the person affected can hear. Possible causes include exposure to loud noise, head and neck injuries, and TMDs.

Tinnitus is a common condition that affects 10% to 25% of adults and children globally. It can be temporary, or if it lasts more than 3 months, experts consider it chronic. Some people will experience tinnitus for the rest of their lives.

Learn more about tinnitus.

Experts know that TMDs are a possible cause of tinnitus, although this is a less common cause than factors such as noise exposure.

A person with TMD-related tinnitus may be able to change the intensity of their tinnitus by moving their jaw in a certain way. This is a type of somatosensory tinnitus. This type of tinnitus can be a result of dysfunction in the TMJ.

According to a 2018 systematic review, the prevalence of tinnitus in people with TMDs is significantly higher than in those without. An older study published in 2013 found that individuals with TMDs were eight times more likely to have tinnitus than those without.

Sound is the main symptom of tinnitus. The sound type can vary and affect one or both ears or sound as though it is coming from the head.

The sound may be continuous or come and go at different times. A person with somatosensory tinnitus may be able to change or lessen the sound by touching or moving their jaw, head, neck, eyes, or other trigger points.

In some cases, tinnitus can cause other symptoms, such as:

Some symptoms of TMDs include:

  • jaw pain, especially when chewing or moving
  • face and neck pain
  • jaw stiffness
  • lockjaw or reduced jaw movement
  • painful popping, grinding, or clicking when moving the jaw
  • hearing loss
  • tinnitus and hearing loss
  • change in upper and lower teeth alignment

Often, TMD symptoms are temporary and do not require professional treatment. However, if symptoms are severe, getting worse, or stopping a person from eating or drinking, it is important to speak with a doctor as soon as possible.

TMDs and tinnitus can affect a person’s physical and mental well-being, and a healthcare professional can offer support and treatment to help a person cope with the symptoms. If someone is experiencing tinnitus due to TMDs, a doctor may be able to help reduce symptoms or offer advice on how to manage the condition.

Although experts know that tinnitus is more likely to affect those with TMD than those without, research into the possible causes of TMJ-related tinnitus is ongoing.

There are several reasons that a person’s TMD may cause tinnitus, including:

  • Mechanical causes: The muscles around the TMJs that a person uses to chew and move their jaw are closely connected to muscles that go into the middle ear. TMDs can affect how these muscles coordinate and function, which may change the mechanics of the inner ear, resulting in tinnitus.
  • Ligament dysfunction: The temporomandibular ligament, which attaches to the jaw and helps stabilize and move the jaw, is directly attached to a bone in the middle ear. TMDs may cause this ligament to become inflamed or strained, which may put pressure on the bone in the middle ear, disrupting its function and causing tinnitus.
  • Somatosensory dysfunction: This type of tinnitus may result from dysfunction in and around the TMJs, which activate a structure of the brainstem called the dorsal cochlear nucleus. This sends a signal to the part of the brain that controls hearing, causing the tinnitus sound.

There is no standardized method for diagnosing TMDs, as the causes and symptoms can vary, but diagnosis may include:

  • taking a medical history
  • assessing symptoms
  • a physical examination of the jaw, head, neck, and face
  • an X-ray
  • an MRI scan
  • a CT scan

Methods for diagnosing tinnitus include:

  • taking a medical history
  • checking for ear infections or a buildup of wax
  • assessing symptoms
  • a physical examination of the ears, head, and neck
  • a hearing test
  • an MRI scan
  • a CT scan
  • an ultrasound

Treatment for tinnitus associated with TMDs may vary depending on the underlying cause and symptoms. Treating a person’s TMD may reduce or eliminate associated tinnitus.

Treatments for TMD may include:

It is important to note that any treatment that permanently alters the jaw joints, teeth, or bite — and certain surgical procedures to treat TMDs — may not be safe or effective. A person should always discuss all treatment options with a qualified healthcare professional and understand how a treatment works.

Methods for managing TMDs include:

  • eating soft foods
  • performing exercises to strengthen and stretch jaw muscles
  • managing habits such as jaw clenching or grinding
  • practicing meditation and relaxation techniques

The outlook for TMJ-related tinnitus depends on the underlying cause and how a person manages their condition. Up to 40% of people who experience TMDs find that their symptoms go away without treatment. While some people have long-term TMDs or tinnitus, treatment and management can reduce the symptoms and help a person cope with the condition.

According to a 2017 review, 69% of patients reported that their tinnitus symptoms improved or went away completely after TMD treatment.

Tips for preventing TMDs include:

  • maintaining a neutral posture
  • avoiding activities that cause jaw pain, such as frequently chewing gum
  • managing jaw-clenching or teeth-grinding habits
  • managing stress
  • eating softer foods
  • staying hydrated

A person with a TMD is more likely to experience tinnitus than someone without a disorder affecting the TMJs. There are several ways that a TMD may cause tinnitus, and research into the connection between these two conditions is ongoing. Both tinnitus and TMDs can be short-term or chronic conditions.

Treating and managing TMD symptoms and underlying causes can help reduce associated tinnitus. A person can use a combination of treatments for TMDs, including medications, physical therapy, exercises, and at-home practices that help reduce symptoms.