The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, can fracture, swell and/or become sore, limiting movement of the lower jaw and causing pain in the head, ear, jaw or neck. If you have trouble opening and closing your mouth, ear or facial pain, pain while chewing, clicking or popping when you chew, toothaches or headaches, the TMJ might be the source of your problem.
This joint — at the base of the skull just in front of the ear — connects the lower jaw with the upper. It has a three-part structure, with a rounded extension of the lower jaw that fits into an indentation in the skull, and a disc-like piece of shock-absorbing cartilage between the two bones.
Head and neck ligaments hold the TMJ together, support the jaw and guide the TMJ’s movements. Muscles connected to those ligaments allow you to open your mouth, and let the lower jaw slide back and forth for eating, yawning and singing.
What Causes TMJ Pain?
Teeth grinding and clenching are common causes. Many people clench and grind their teeth at night and don’t even know it. Stress can also cause clenching. Your dentist can determine if this is the cause of your pain by examining your teeth for wear.
TMJ pain can also be caused by genetics, arthritis or a jaw injury – or a combination of the three.
Misalignment of the teeth is another cause of TMJ problems. When the teeth do not line up, certain movements make the teeth grind together. Misalignment can make it hard to smile, eat, swallow, or rest your mouth comfortably. In addition to TMJ pain, misaligned jaws can cause headaches, sleep apnea, excessive tooth wear, and dry mouth.
When You Should Get Help
You only need to see a dentist or oral surgeon if the pain is persistent, your jaw is tender, or you can’t completely open your mouth. If your care provider suspects a problem, he or she may recommend dental X-rays, a CT scan or an MRI. Arthroscopy is sometimes also used in the diagnosis of TMJ injury.
What Can You Do About TMJ Pain?
Pain in the TMJ is often temporary, and can be treated with a pattern of ice, then heat to relieve the sore ligaments and muscles. Eat soft foods and avoid chewing gum and yawning when you have pain.
Medicines for TMJ pain can include pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, tricyclic antidepressants, and muscle relaxers.
Your dentist may prescribe an over-the-counter or custom-made clear plastic bite guard to wear at night to protect your teeth, if grinding is the cause of the problem.
Physical therapy is also sometimes prescribed. There are easy massages you can do at home on your face and head to sooth the muscles that govern the TMJ. Here is a YouTube video showing how to perform these exercises. You can also do gentle jaw stretching and relaxing exercises.
Counseling can help you understand behaviors that contribute to the pain – such as grinding and clenching your teeth, leaning on your chin, or biting your nails – and learn to avoid these behaviors.
Alternative medicine techniques such as acupuncture, relaxation techniques and biofeedback may help manage the chronic pain associated with TMJ disorders.
If your bite is the problem, orthodontics are often indicated, but in some cases, jaw surgery is also needed. It can be done on the upper jaw, lower jaw, and/or chin at Wilmington Oral Surgery.
When other methods don’t help, arthrocentesis, injections, arthroscopy and a surgery called a modified condylotomy are additional treatments.
TMJ pain affects over 10 million Americans, and the condition is more common in women than men. If you think you may have a TMJ injury or disorder, contact your dentist or Wilmington Oral Surgery.