Last week, a patient came into our office looking for help. For months, she’d been experiencing jaw pain and hearing a clicking noise every time she opened her mouth.
After a short examination and a discussion of her symptoms in more detail, we confirmed our suspicions: she was suffering from TMJ disorder.
What is TMJ disorder
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects your cheek bone to your jaw bone. With the help of your jaw muscles, this joint allows for the rotating and gliding actions used when chewing and speaking.
You can think of this joint like a door hinge, which is a movement that’s generally smooth. When working properly, you don’t even notice it. Unfortunately, the TMJ is rather sensitive. It can become easily inflamed, injured, or poorly positioned, causing a disruption in its smooth motion.
The result is TMJ disorder (sometimes called TMD). This disorder makes it difficult and uncomfortable to open and close your mouth. As you can imagine, living with this issue can be frustrating and painful.
Jaw-dropping facts about TMJ
Many people don’t realize just how common TMJ disorder really is.
- An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ disorder
- This disorder typically develops between the ages of 20 and 40
- Women are 3 times more likely to suffer from TMJ pain than men
- The primary cause of TMJ pain is stress (the TMJ is the only joint system in the body that can register stress)
- Left untreated, TMJ disorder can escalate and become more disruptive to your health and wellness
What causes your TMJ
Your jaw is complex and there are likely a number of factors at play. For example, the joint bone itself could be damaged. You also might have strained muscles around the joint, or the disc of cartilage in your joint could be displaced.
The underlying reason for these issues can be difficult to pinpoint. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes.
Teeth grinding and clenching (bruxism)
Chronic teeth grinding and clenching (also called bruxism) is a huge instigator of TMJ problems. Since this usually happens at night, many people who grind or clench their teeth don’t even know they’re doing it!
Clenching and grinding causes tense jaw muscles. And as we know, tense muscles around the jaw can lead to TMJ pain.
Missing or crooked teeth
When you’re missing one or more teeth, you’ll overwork your mouth and jaw muscles when chewing. In addition to causing tense muscles, it can also slowly cause your jaw joint to become misaligned or thrown out of whack.
TMJ causing issues are often caused by a traumatic facial injury. Whether you were hit in the face by a baseball, got in a car accident, or experienced some other traumatic injury, your jaw bone, muscle, or cartilage surrounding the joint might feel the long-term effects.
As we mentioned, TMJ pain is often linked to stress. But stress is certainly not the only lifestyle factor affecting your jaw joint. Things like poor posture, excessive gum chewing, or even health issues like rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis can lead to pain in the TMJ joint.
Signs you might have TMJ disorder
The most obvious sign of a TMJ disorder is a tender or painful jaw. However, there are other symptoms to be aware of. The good news is, if you know what to keep an eye out for TMJ problems are quite noticeable.
Watch out for…
- Frequent headaches
- Pain when chewing
- Tightness or pain in your jaw — even when not eating
- Trouble sleeping or a painful jaw upon waking
- A clicking, popping, or grinding sound in your jaw
- Stiffness in the muscles in your face, neck, and back
- Blurry vision
- Sharp pain in your cheek
- A new and stressful situation in your life
If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your dentist to understand prevention and treatment therapies and ensure the problem does not escalate.
Surprising ways TMJ affects your health
Left untreated, TMJ can have devastating effects on both your oral and overall health.
- Changes to your jaw bite
- Wear and tear on your teeth, jaw, and gums
- Damage to prior dental work
- Eating disorders
- Lack of sleep (and its associated symptoms)
- Chronic headaches
- Hearing problems
How to prevent TMJ
If you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life or you notice some light TMJ disorder symptoms, take steps to prevent the pain from growing and symptoms to dissipate. The simplest prevention method is to focus on relaxing your face and jaw.
Do you have a favorite relaxation technique? Our patients have shared a few if their favorite TMJ pain relaxation methods:
- Deep breathing
- Warm towels on the face
Whatever helps you relax, make an effort to incorporate it into your life.
Avoid clenching your jaw
Constantly clenching your teeth together will wear out and damage your jaw. Keep a gap between your teeth when you’re not eating or swallowing. If you notice you’re clenching, immediately relax your jaw. If your jaw feels tight, use your fingers to slowly massage your jaw joint or move your jaw slowly from side to side for a nice stretch.
Avoid chewing gum (and other habits)
Your lifestyle habits can contribute to a sore jaw. Try cutting back on chewing gum as much as possible, and avoid biting your nails or chewing on straws. Even habits like always holding your telephone between your shoulder and jaw can cause problems.
Watch you posture
Your posture affects your facial bones and muscles. Try your best to sit up straight and keep your shoulders back when standing.
Treatment for TMJ pain
There are several treatment options we may recommend, based on your situation:
- Night Guard: A custom-fitted night guard will help prevent you from grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw at night.
- Invisalign: If the cause of your TMJ pain is crooked or misaligned teeth, Invisalign or 6-Month Smiles may be recommended to fix the alignment of your bite.
- Occlusal equilibration: This treatment gently adjusts your mouth to help your lower and upper teeth meet correctly and get rid of jaw pain.
- Physical Therapy: Seeing a licensed physical therapist (PT) might be a great option. A PT can help you relax, stretch, and release tight muscles in the face causing your TMJ pain.
Schedule a TMJ consultation at The Winning Smile Dental Group
Feel a slight twinge in your jaw joint and are worried about possible TMJ issues? Experiencing a lot of TMJ pain? Let’s talk.
TMJ is very treatable. We’ll help you understand whether or not you require a more serious therapy beyond prevention and relaxation techniques.
A native of Yazoo City, Dr. Lee Gary received his degree from Mississippi College and his Doctor of Dental Medicine from The University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Dentistry. Dr. Gary is dedicated to not only cosmetic transformations but the overall health and well-being of his patients.