Temporomandibular disorders, more commonly referred to as TMJ disorders or just TMJ, are a group of conditions that affect the muscles around the jaw and related joints. TMJ is actually the abbreviation for the joint that connects the mandible (lower jaw) to the temporal bone (skull). You can feel the joints move when you place your fingers in front of your ears and open and close your mouth.
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), TMJ disorders are the second most common pain-causing musculoskeletal conditions after chronic low back pain. TMJ disorders affect 5 percent to 12 percent of the population, and women are twice as likely to experience TMJ disorders as men. Most people who have TMJ experience temporary but recurring pain that may go away on its own. However, some cases result in long-term problems.
The most common symptoms of TMJ include headache, face pain and aches in and around your ear. People with TMJ may also experience a sense of dizziness or imbalance and feel like their ears are clogged or ringing. TMJ disorders usually limit jaw movement and make chewing painful or difficult. Your jaw may also make a clicking or popping sound when you open your mouth. However, jaw-clicking without the presence of pain is common and alone does not mean a TMJ condition.
See a medical professional if you experience continuous pain or if the range of motion of your jaw is limited. Your doctor, dentist or an ears, nose and throat doctor can diagnose TMJ. Some conditions and diseases, including whiplash, arthritis and gum disease, can cause TMJ-like symptoms. Medical professionals can complete a full dental evaluation, or use X-rays, CT scans or MRIs to recognize TMJ or jaw irregularities.
According to the NIDCR, researchers have yet to determine the definite cause of TMJ disorders and the most effective form of treatment. Any jaw trauma could play a role in TMJ. Other theories include a bad bite or misalignment of the teeth and habitual gum chewing or nail biting. Teeth grinding and clenching, possibly caused by stress, are often associated with TMJ disorders. Holding the phone between your jaw and shoulder and poor posture can strain your neck and face muscles, which may cause pain.
TMJ symptoms may come and go, and there are simple ways to handle the pain
Minimize the use of your jaw and rest it by making a conscious effort not to stretch your mouth too wide if you have to yawn. Avoid chewing gum and biting your nails, and eat soft food. You can also learn exercises to stretch, relax and massage your jaw area. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen can provide temporary pain relief. You can also apply ice to the sore spots. Antidepressants and muscle relaxers may relieve jaw pain. Sleeping with or wearing a mouth guard, bite guard or stabilization splint can prevent you from grinding your teeth at night and reduce pain.
Many people tense their jaw and clench their teeth when they are stressed. Learn and practice healthy stress management techniques like yoga, deep breathing and meditation. Support groups and cognitive behavioral therapy may help with stress relating to underlying issues. In general, exercising regularly may help body’s ability to tolerate pain. You could choose to get corrective dental surgery as a last resort, but it could worsen symptoms.