For about 3 years, Sally heard clicking when she opened her mouth. It wasn’t painful, so she didn’t worry. But then the sides of Sally’s face started to ache. She began having bad headaches and problems chewing and opening her mouth wide.
When the pain continued to get worse, Sally and her parents spoke with their family doctor. He referred Sally and her parents to a local dentist who specialized in jaw disorders. After examining Sally and asking her some questions, the specialist said Sally had a TMJ disorder.
What Are TMJ Disorders?
TMJ disorders are medical problems related to the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. These problems can cause pain, difficulty chewing, and other issues.
You can feel your TM joints by placing your fingers directly in front of your ears and opening your mouth. What you’re feeling are the rounded ends of your lower jaw as they glide along the joint socket of your temporal bone (that’s the part of your skull that contains your inner ear and temple).
TMJ disorders can affect people of any age. Many people who have TMJ disorders are young women.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
There are lots of different types of TMJ disorders. So it follows that there are also many different symptoms. Some of the more common signs of a TMJ disorder are:
- Pain in the facial muscles, jaw joints, or around the ear. Some people also feel pain in the neck and shoulders, especially when they talk, chew, or yawn. Occasionally people with TMJ disorders may have muscle spasms.
- Popping, clicking, or grating sounds when opening or closing your mouth. (Some people hear these noises but don’t have other symptoms. When that’s the case, they may not have a TMJ disorder.)
- Difficulty chewing or biting.
- Headaches, dizziness, ear pain, hearing loss, and ringing in the ears (tinnitus).
- Trouble opening your mouth all the way or jaw locking. It is possible for the jaw to lock wide open or lock shut.
What Causes TMJ Disorders?
It’s often not clear what causes a TMJ disorder, but many things can contribute to it.
Jaw clenching or teeth grinding can make a TMJ disorder more likely. When the joint is overworked, a disc can wear down or move out of place. Grinding and clenching also can cause the way the teeth line up to change, and can affect the muscles used to chew. Sometimes people don’t realize that they’re clenching or grinding — they may even do it during their sleep.
Stress can influence TMJ symptoms by making people more likely to grind their teeth, clench their jaw, or tighten their jaw muscles.
TMJ disorders are also more common in people with other dental problems (like a bad bite), joint problems (like arthritis), muscle problems, or a history of trauma to the jaw or face.
How Are TMJ Disorders Diagnosed?
If you’re having symptoms of a TMJ disorder, let your dentist know. The earlier a TMJ disorder is diagnosed and treated, the better.
Your dentist will ask you questions and examine you. He or she may need to order imaging tests, like X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI in order to see if you have a TMJ disorder.
Treating TMJ Disorders
If you do have a TMJ disorder, the pain may go away on its own in a few days. In the meantime, try to eat soft foods.
Avoid doing things that might aggravate the temporomandibular joint or face muscles, such as chewing gum, clenching or grinding your teeth, or opening your mouth extra wide when you yawn. Applying ice packs or heat on the side of the face may offer some relief.
If the pain is especially intense or does not go away on its own, see your doctor or dentist right away.
If your jaw gets locked open or shut, go to a hospital emergency room. Doctors may manipulate your jaw until you can open or close it. (Sometimes doctors will give people medication if it’s needed to keep them comfortable during the procedure.)
Some treatments can help with TMJ disorders. For instance, if pain is caused by clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth, your dentist may fit you with a splint or bite plate to wear at night to help reduce clenching and grinding.
Sometimes doctors prescribe medication to help relieve the pain or relax the muscles. And if a problem with your bite is contributing to your TMJ disorder, your dentist may recommend braces or other dental work to fix the problem.
Occasionally, when the symptoms do not respond to other treatments, someone may need surgery to repair damaged tissue in the joint. But most people don’t need surgery for a TMJ disorder.
What You Can Do
You can take control and help lessen problems from TMJ disorders by reducing stress through breathing exercises and getting plenty of exercise. Also, try to be aware of times when you might clench your jaw or grind your teeth.
You may notice you’re clenching or grinding your teeth when you’re under pressure — like during a test. However, lots of people clench or grind when they don’t feel stressed — like while they focus intently on a task or push their limits during a workout or game. Just being aware of these habits is the first step to ending them.
Your dentist can give you more tips on avoiding the symptoms of TMJ disorders.
Reviewed by: Kenneth H. Hirsch, DDS
Date reviewed: October 2012