TMJ disorders affect the jaw joint and muscles that control the jaw. They can be challenging to diagnose and treat because of how complex this joint is.
Around 12 percent of people in the United States experience TMJ disorders at any one time. Women are affected more often than men, with 9 women to every 1 man experiencing severe pain and restricted jaw movement.
Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options available for TMJ disorders is essential for patients and doctors alike
What are TMJ disorders?
TMJ disorders are conditions that affect the TMJ specifically. There is a range of possible symptoms, which can cause varying amounts of discomfort.
TMJ disorders are a broad category, and the term includes many possible causes. As such, there are a variety of treatment options available.
Doctors may diagnose TMJ disorders based on a range of symptoms, including persistent pain around the jaw and restricted jaw movement.
Most cases of TMJ disorders will resolve themselves within a short period, usually within a couple of months. Some cases, however, may be ongoing or reoccur.
What causes TMJ disorder?
In many cases, it’s not known what causes a TMJ disorder. Trauma to the jaw or joint may play a role. There are also other health conditions that may contribute to the development of TMJD. These include:
- erosion of the joint
- habitual grinding or clenching of the teeth
- structural jaw problems present at birth
There are some other factors that are often associated with the development of TMJD, but they haven’t been proven to cause TMJD. These include:
- the use of orthodontic braces
- poor posture that strains the muscles of the neck and face
- prolonged stress
- poor diet
- lack of sleep
What are the symptoms of TMJD?
The symptoms of TMJ disorders depend on the severity and cause of your condition. The most common symptom of TMJD is pain in the jaw and surrounding muscles. Other symptoms typically associated with these disorders include:
- pain that can be felt in the face or neck
- stiffness in the muscles of the jaw
- limited movement of the jaw
- locking of the jaw
- clicking or popping sound from the TMJ site
- shift in the jaw, changing the way that the upper and lower teeth align (called malocclusion)
Symptoms may show up on just one side of the face, or both.
How is TMJD diagnosed?
Your doctor or dentist will discuss your symptoms and examine your jaw. He or she will probably:
- Listen to and feel your jaw when you open and close your mouth
- Observe the range of motion in your jaw
- Press on areas around your jaw to identify sites of pain or discomfort
If your doctor or dentist suspects a problem, you may need:
- Dental X-rays to examine your teeth and jaw
- CT scan to provide detailed images of the bones involved in the joint
- MRI to reveal problems with the joint’s disk or surrounding soft tissue
TMJ arthroscopy is sometimes used in the diagnosis of a TMJ disorder. During TMJ arthroscopy, your doctor inserts a small thin tube (cannula) into the joint space, and a small camera (arthroscope) is then inserted to view the area and to help determine a diagnosis.
How is TMJD treated?
In most cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders can be treated with self-care practices at home. To ease the symptoms of TMJ you can:
- eat soft foods
- use ice to reduce swelling
- reduce jaw movements
- avoid chewing gum and tough foods (like beef jerky)
- reduce stress
- use jaw-stretching exercises to help improve jaw movement
You may need help from your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve with these treatments. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe or recommend the following:
- pain medications (such as ibuprofen)
- medications to relax the muscles of the jaw (such as Flexeril, Soma, or Valium)
- medications to help reduce swelling in the jaw (corticosteroid drugs)
- stabilization splints or bite guards to prevent teeth grinding
- Botox to reduce tension in the muscle and nerves of the jaw
- cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce stress
In rare cases, your doctor may recommend surgery or other procedures to treat your condition. Procedures can include:
- corrective dental treatment to improve your bite and align your teeth
- arthrocentesis, which removes fluid and debris from the joint
- surgery to replace the joint
Procedures used to treat this condition may, in some cases, make your symptoms worse. Talk to your doctor about the potential risks of these procedures.
How can TMJD be prevented?
You may not be able to prevent TMJD from developing, but you might be able to reduce symptoms by lowering your stress levels. It could be helpful to try to stop grinding your teeth if this is an issue for you. Possible solutions for teeth grinding include wearing a mouth guard at night and taking muscle relaxants. You may also help prevent teeth grinding by reducing your overall stress and anxiety through counseling, exercise, and diet.
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