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Understanding and Dealing with Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJ)

A lot of our patients never realize that they’re suffering from temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) until they come in for an evaluation and learn more about it. For a lot of people, a slight pain in the jaw or tension in the jaw muscles is just another pain – one that likely comes and goes. Unfortunately, this may also mean they won’t bring it up at their dental appointment since they’re not sure what caused the problem.

While it is true that most people’s symptoms improve significantly or even disappear on their own within a few weeks (sometimes months), for some, the TMJ results in long-term debilitating pain.

You don’t have to “just deal with the pain” and hope that it will go away on its own. If you start to experience some of the known symptoms, be sure to speak with us and we’ll determine if it’s something that needs to be addressed with a specific treatment.

What Is The Temporomandibular Joint?

The temporomandibular joint is what connects the lower jaw (mandible) to the side of the head (temporal bone). The joint is flexible, so the jaw can move up and down and side to side. It seems like a small thing, but it’s actually one of the more complicated mechanical actions in the body, and we rely on it working effectively to eat and speak every day.

What Causes TMJ?

The exact cause of TMJ could be different for everyone and potentially related to a number of other problems, like grinding and clenching teeth or trauma of some kind. In general, though, TMJ disorders are likely to occur if the joint’s cartilage is damaged by arthritis or some kind of impact or if the joint somehow gets out of proper alignment.

Unfortunately, symptoms can also appear without any obvious reasons, too, so if you start to see some of these things, be sure to talk to us about it.

Common Symptoms Include:

  • Popping or grating in the lower jaw (However, jaw noise alone doesn’t mean TMJ. You need to be concerned if these noises come with pain or hindrances to your ability to move your jaw.)
  • A change in your normal bite
  • Pain, soreness, or tenderness in your jaw
  • An ache around your ears
  • Joints locking so that it’s hard to open and close your mouth
  • Aching pain in the facial muscles
  • General stiffness in the jaw muscles
  • Difficulty chewing food
  • Constant pain in the face, neck, or jaw

What Are Your Treatment Options

If we determine that you are suffering from this disorder, we can begin to consider your TMJ treatment options. While extremely severe cases may require surgery, we avoid that whenever possible. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research also recommends that it be avoided whenever possible because it’s better to use reversible and non-invasive treatments that don’t alter the shape of the jaw.

Some of the effective treatments include:

  • Botox – This has become a popular treatment for TMJ. It is injected into the muscles that are affected by the disorder which then alleviates the pain, stress, and headaches that often occur. It may even minimize lock jaw.
  • Oral appliances – Some plastic mouthpieces that fit over your upper and lower teeth may help. They keep you from grinding your teeth, which may alleviate some of the strain. They can also help position your bite by keeping your teeth in a more correct position.
  • Medications – Sometimes an over-the-counter pain relief medication can help your situation, but sometimes the TMJ is too severe for that. In these cases you may require a prescription for something stronger. Still, we would recommend medication only in conjunction with one of the other treatments.

Research into the causes and treatments of TMJ continues. The most important thing to remember, though, is that you can get relief from the pain. If you begin to notice some of those symptoms, mention it to us as soon as possible and we’ll work with you to determine your best options for treatment.