What Really Causes TMJ Disorders, and How Can You Treat Them?

Do you frequently feel a clicking sensation in your jaw? You might feel it most when you yawn widely or chew during meals. Occasionally, those pops and clicks are painful, and your jaw muscles almost always feel tense.

What you’re feeling may come from a temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. But just how did this problem happen? Are you doing something wrong when you chew? Did you inherit the condition? You’re not sure. You just know that it’s not enjoyable.

Where is Your Temporomandibular Joint, and What Does It Do?

If you put your index finger just in front of your ear, then open your mouth, you’ll feel a slight depression in front of your ear. If you move your jaw slightly from side to side (or up and down), you’ll feel the motion of your temporomandibular joint, a flexible but complex structure that moves multi-directionally during chewing, yawning, or speaking.

Your jaw hinge has rounded bones, or condyles, that glide over the temporal bone each time you chew or speak. In a healthy jaw, the condyles simply resume their resting position when the mouth closes.

In between the temporal bone and condyle, there’s a flexible disc that acts as shock absorber during jaw movements. This disc is important, because it also shields jaw and joints from tremendous biting forces.

Common TMJ Problems

Because of its sophisticated movement, the TM joint and surrounding muscles are vulnerable to several problems:

  • Joint disorders – These can occur if you experience a dislocated jaw, disc slippage, or condyle injuries.
  • Muscular pain – You may feel masseter muscle pain (just under the cheek bone) or in any other muscle of the head or neck.
  • Arthritis – This condition causes inflammation of joints, including the TM joint.

Other common culprits that attack temporomandibular function include fibromyalgia, rheumatic diseases, chronic fatigue, and stress-related conditions.

In tandem with the typical popping or clicking, watch for chronic jaw stiffness, a grating sensation during chewing, pain throughout the jaw and face, and difficulty opening the jaw. You may also notice changes in your bite or overall teeth alignment.

On the other hand, if jaw clicking is your only symptom, you may not have a TMJ disorder at all. Clicking and other jaw noises are fairly common.

How to Assess Your Problem and Find Relief

For whatever reason, nearly 90 percent of TMJ disorder sufferers are women. Many are middle aged, although dentists also see TMJ disorders in teens and older patients.

No matter your sex or age, if you’re worried about your symptoms, it’s time to see a dentist for a thorough assessment. Your dentist may ask you about your habits, lifestyle, and family’s medical history. He or she may then examine your jaw and facial muscles for signs of wear or tenderness. If needed, the dentist may refer you to a specialist.

If you began noticing TMJ disorder symptoms after getting braces or a new crown, mention this during your TMJ exam. Dental work doesn’t cause TMJ disorder, but it can aggravate symptoms if your bite feels odd after the work and you overcompensate by clenching your jaw muscles.

TMJ Disorder Treatment Options

According to a 2009 New York Times report, several scientists from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research suggest that less is more when treating most TMJ disorder patients.

Because so many factors play a role in these disorders, too much therapy-particularly if it’s irreversible or surgical-can backfire and cause further trouble. Many dentists suggest self-care strategies instead. Here are a few:

  • Resting the jaw
  • Eating gentle, soft foods
  • Using hot and cold therapy (heat pads, ice packs)
  • Avoiding gum chewing
  • Reducing stress responses like jaw clenching through meditation, yoga, and similar practices
  • Following a conservative regimen for stretching jaw muscles (ask your dentist or a physical therapist first)
  • Taking OTC medications short term (ibuprofen, NSAIDs) if your dentist recommends it
  • Fitting a mouth guard to your teeth to alleviate jaw clenching, particularly at night

Sleeping on your stomach can cause tension in your jaw that aggravates your symptoms. Similarly, if you play a brass musical instrument, you might experience more stress on your jaw. Try changing your sleep position and relaxing your facial muscles in between practice sessions to alleviate jaw pain caused by these two activities.

If your situation requires more assertive therapy, your doctor or dentist may prescribe Botox injections to tighten, then relax, the muscles in your jaw. Your doctor or dentist may also use ultrasound treatments or diathermy to retrain your muscles.

Your dentist will likely only consider surgery if the jaw is malformed or bone fragments need to be removed. For the majority of TMJ disorder patients, rest and self-care are usually the best options.

Talk to your dentist today if you think you may have a TMJ disorder. He or she can tell you about the latest advancements in jaw an d dental care and prescribe the treatment that best fits your situation and disorder. Before long, you’ll have a plan for greater jaw comfort and better oral health.

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