In today’s post, we’ll talk about one of the most common complaints we hear from patients at Union Dental Center: pain in the jaw, often while chewing. In many cases, this ends up being pain caused by TMJ disorder. In today’s post, you’ll learn the symptoms, causes, and treatments of TMJ pain and how your dentist can help.
What is TMJ disorder?
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the cheek bone to the jaw bone. Think of it as the pivot point allowing your mouth to open and close with the help of the jaw muscles. When the TMJ is working properly, you don’t even notice it.
Unfortunately, the joint can easily become inflamed or positioned in such a way that it can’t open and close freely. When this happens, the result is TMJ disorder (often just called TMD), a potentially painful and frustrating condition.
TMJ disorder is on the rise. We believe the primary cause of TMJ pain is STRESS. Many psychologists believe people are more stressed than ever before, and for many people this increased stress manifests itself physically. Unlike other joints in the body, the temporomandibular joint is the only joint system that can register stress.
- 15% of adults suffer from TMJ pain
- TMJ often develops between the ages of 20 and 40
- Women are more likely than men to suffer from TMJ pain
Does this sound familiar?
TMJ pain is very noticeable. Ask yourself, do you…
- Suffer from frequent headaches?
- Experience pain when chewing?
- Feel tightness or pain in your jaw— even when not eating?
- Have trouble sleeping or a painful jaw upon waking?
- Hear a clicking, popping, or grinding sound in your jaw?
- Have stiffness in the muscles in your face, neck and back?
- Experience dizziness?
- Experience blurry vision?
- Experience a “shocking” pain in your cheek?
- Have several teeth that are sensitive to cold?
- Is there a new stressful situation in your life?
An important thing to remember is in most cases, TMJ disorder is episodic and is not a chronic disorder. This means the pain will come and go, frequently dictated by stress levels.
What causes TMJ pain?
As we mentioned earlier, TMJ pain is very often linked to stress. However, other physical causes are possible as well. Because your jaw structure is complex, a variety of culprits may actually be causing your TMJ pain. The bone in the joint itself may be damaged, the muscles surrounding the joint may be strained, or the disc of cartilage in the joint may be displaced or damaged.
The true, underlying cause of the pain may be even more difficult to ascertain. Let’s review a few of the more common causes of TMJ pain.
Teeth grinding and clenching
Perhaps the most common cause of TMJ pain is chronic teeth grinding and clenching. Due to stress and other factors, many people grind and clench their teeth during sleep without even realizing it. Tense muscles and the grinding of the jaw frequently lead to TMJ pain.
Misaligned jaw due to missing or crooked teeth
Over time as the joint is used, it may become misaligned or thrown out of place, leading to the painful symptoms of TMJ disorder. The muscles may be overworked because of missing or crooked teeth causing an inefficiency during chewing.
A car accident, sports injury, or other traumatic injury can damage the bone, muscle, or cartilage surrounding the joint.
Other medical causes
Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and other conditions may lead to pain in the TMJ joint. Diseases that affect connective tissue can also cause TMJ pain.
DID YOU KNOW:
Your teeth should only touch when you chew and swallow. Teeth that are touching or clenching are causing tension that may lead to the painful symptoms of TMJ disorder.
Treating TMJ pain
Oftentimes the most difficult part of treating TMJ pain is getting an accurate diagnosis. This is where a dentist can help. At Union Dental Center, we’ve helped hundreds of people in the Havre de Grace area diagnose and treat their TMJ. Let’s review a few of the most common treatments available— but please remember, only an experienced dentist or physician can help you decide which treatment is right for you.
For thousands of years, acupuncture has played an important part in traditional Chinese medicine. Though, only recently have Western physician’s begun to see its value. Some recent studies show acupuncture may be useful in treating TMJ pain and other conditions. However the reasons why acupuncture works are not so clear.
Because stress is a common cause of teeth grinding and clenching, reducing stress may be effective in reducing TMJ pain. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other relaxation techniques can reduce stress. There’s almost no downside to trying these methods to reduce stress and your TMJ pain may even improve!
Anti-inflammatories and other medications
During the day when TMJ pain is at its worst, your dentist or physician may recommend muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, or pain medication to reduce the intensity of your symptoms. However, treating symptoms is not the same thing as curing the underlying cause of your pain. Medication might not be appropriate for long-term solution for TMJ pain as the body often compensates for the medicine and increases pain to bring awareness to the problem.
Physical therapy and even exercises you can do at home can offer relief from TMJ disorder. Exercises can increase strength in the muscles around the jaw, relax strained muscles, and offer other benefits as well.
Another form of physical therapy, known as myofascial massage, can help reduce and prevent TMJ pain. This treatment helps stop muscle spasms and encourages muscles to spring back to a healthy resting state, and also to simply relieve stress.
Custom-made mouthguards worn while sleeping prevent teeth grinding and jaw clenching. These mouthguards are designed to fit your mouth and stop the behaviors that lead to TMJ pain. Mouthguards are also available that gently reposition the jaw and correct physical problems causing TMJ pain.
At Union Dental Center, our dentists usually recommend an NTI (Nociceptive Trigeminal Inhibition system), a special type of guard worn over the front teeth to stop clenching and grinding.
In some cases, surgery may prove necessary to correct physical issues causing TMJ pain. For many people surgery is unnecessary and not recommended— generally speaking it’s best to try all other available treatments before resorting to surgical intervention.