Any time you open or close your mouth, chew, yawn, speak, or swallow, the Temporomandibular joints (TMJ) on each side of your head make it possible. However, sometimes an issue arises with the complex system of bones, ligaments, muscles in your jaw. This may cause pain and other symptoms like clicking or popping—or even cause difficulty opening your mouth at all.
These symptoms —collectively known as TMJ syndrome— are common and can disrupt your daily life. TMJ treatments can correct the problem, eliminating the pain and restoring jaw function. At Penn Dental Family Practice, our team of experienced oral medicine providers can uncover the underlying cause of your TMJ disorder, and recommend an effective treatment.
For most people, the first sign of TMJ syndrome is pain. TMJ pain is typically a dull ache around the ears or in the face, or more severe pain in the jaw or around the jaw joints themselves. Sometimes the pain intensifies with chewing. In severe cases, TMJ syndrome can affect your ability to open and close your mouth, speak, or eat. Although you might hear noises or feel a grinding sensation in your jaw, unless it causes pain, you most likely do not need TMJ treatment. However, if you have persistent jaw pain or tenderness, or you can’t easily open or close your mouth, see your doctor or dentist. They will determine the cause, and recommend the best course of treatment.
Determining a specific cause for TMJ syndrome can be challenging. In fact, there isn’t currently a standard test or protocol for diagnosing TMJ. As a result, healthcare providers have to rely on patient reports of pain, physical exams, and in some cases, X-rays. Often, diagnosing TMJ means ruling out other causes of pain and discomfort, such as certain types of headaches, sinus or ear infections, or nerve disorders.
Often, TMJ begins without any obvious trigger. Researchers are looking at a connection between TMJ and female hormones, since the condition is more common in women than in men. However, there have been no conclusive findings.
For many people, stress (more specifically the habit of clenching their jaw or grinding their teeth) is the primary cause of TMJ syndrome. This causes the facial and jaw muscles to tighten and become tense, increasing pain. It also puts more pressure on the joint.
Other potential causes for TMJ syndrome include:
In most cases, TMJ treatments are non-invasive and focus on alleviating discomfort. Dentists typically begin with conservative TMJ pain treatments because in most cases, the issue is temporary and doesn’t permanently affect jaw function. These treatments may include a combination of the following options:
Surgery isn’t typically recommended as a TMJ treatment. In fact, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) recommends a “less is best” approach to managing TMJ disorder.
Still, when conservative treatments fail to correct the problem, or pain is caused by anatomical anomalies that will not respond to other options, surgery can bring relief. Depending on your symptoms and the cause of TMJ syndrome, your oral surgeon may recommend one of the following TMJ surgical procedures:
It’s often possible to resolve TMJ disorder symptoms at home with over-the-counter medications, eating soft foods, and applying moist heat or ice packs to the tender areas. Making an effort to avoid clenching your jaw or other stress-related habits can also help. If the pain doesn’t subside, or it gets worse, make an appointment with a Penn Dental Family Practice provider. They can help determine the source of your discomfort and recommend treatments so you can be more comfortable and reduce the risk of damage to your teeth.