TMJ, also referred to as TMJD or TMD, is an abbreviation for Temporomandibular joint dysfunction. It describes problems with the joint that connects your to your skull. The movement of these joints can be felt by placing the fingers on each side of the face, directly in front of your ears, and opening and closing the mouth.
People who experience TMJ typically have pain in the general area of the jaw joint, which may present as headaches or radiate into the neck, shoulders and inside the ears. They may be unable to open their mouth widely; the jaw may even "lock" in an open or closed position. There is often a feeling of grinding or clicking that accompanies jaw movements like talking or chewing. Some TMJ sufferers notice that their upper and lower teeth do not fit together properly.
There are several conditions thought to cause or contribute to TMJ. These include injuries like whiplash, teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism), arthritis or stress. TMJ is most commonly diagnosed in people aged 20 to 40, and women are more likely to have TMJ than men.
Signs and Symptoms of TMD
Clicking Sounds — Some people with TMD hear a clicking, popping or grating sound coming from the TMJ when opening or closing the mouth. This is usually caused by a shifting of the disk inside the joint. Someone standing next to you might even be able to hear it. Clicking by itself is actually not a significant symptom because one third of all people have jaw joints that click, studies show. However, if the clicking is accompanied by pain or limited jaw function — the jaw getting “stuck” in an open or closed position, for example — this would indicate TMD.
Muscle Pain — This can be felt in the cheeks (masseter muscles) and temples (temporalis muscles), where the two big pairs of jaw-closing muscles are located. If you feel soreness and stiffness upon waking up in the morning, it's often related to habits such as clenching and/or grinding the teeth at night. If you have this type of nocturnal habit, a custom-made nightguard should be very helpful in decreasing the force applied to your teeth, which will in turn allow your muscles to relax and relieve pressure on your jaw joints. Other self-care remedies are discussed below (please see Relieving the Pain).
Joint Pain — Pain that's actually coming from one or both jaw joints technically would be described as arthritis (“arth” – joint; “itis” – inflammation) of the TMJ. Radiographs (x-ray pictures) show that some people have arthritic-looking TMJs but no symptoms of pain or dysfunction; others have significant symptoms of pain and dysfunction but their joints look normal on radiographs. There is no cure for arthritis anywhere in the body, but medication can sometimes help relieve arthritic symptoms.
Dentists diagnose TMJ through a combination of diagnostic imaging and physical examination; the movement of the jaw and the bite will be evaluated and compared with X-rays, CT scan or MRI images.
There are several treatments for TMJ that can be performed at home. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications can alleviate pain and promote muscle relaxation; alternating heat and ice to the affected area can also be helpful. Eating soft foods during "flare-ups" helps to give the jaw a much-needed rest. Holding the mouth properly - teeth slightly apart - relieves unnecessary pressure. Stress-relief therapy like yoga or massage may also help the patient achieve a more relaxed overall state.
If more conservative methods fail to bring relief, treatments like laser or TENS therapy may be necessary. In severe cases, surgery to repair the joint tissue or bones may be the most effective option.
Do you have jaw pain? Call Steven Syrop, DDS in Manhattan, New York City and
Briarcliff, NY at (212) 969-9166 to learn more about TMJ/TMD treatment!