TMJ symptoms generally cause pain in the jaw, but may also radiate to other areas of the face, neck, and head.
The temporomandibular joint is located on each side of the face, right in front of the ears. It connects the lower jawbone to the skull and supports functions like chewing food and talking.
Any problems with these two joints can cause significant discomfort and be associated with chronic or acute TMJ disorder.
What is TMJ?
TMJ, or temporomandibular disorder (TMD), can occur when the muscles and ligaments located around the joints of the jaw become irritated or inflamed. The result is mild to severe pain in the jaw and face, as well as limiting the jaw’s range of motion.
Even though TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joint itself, many people refer to the painful disorder as simply TMJ.
While women are more likely to experience TMJ, many men also experience the condition. People between the ages of 20 to 40 are the most likely to suffer from the problem.
The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports that as many as 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from TMJ disorder.
There are a number of different causes for TMJ, and while the condition is treatable, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose.
What Causes TMJ?
Essentially, the cause of TMJ is inflamed or irritated soft-tissue — ligaments and muscles — in the temporomandibular joints.
There can be a number of reasons, though, that this may occur.
Common Causes of TMJ Can Include:
- Trauma to the face and temporomandibular joint from a collision or impact of some sort
- Dislocation of the ball and socket joint in the jaw
- Teeth grinding and clenching, known as Bruxism
- Arthritis in the temporomandibular joint
- Acute or chronic stress
- Structural abnormalities in the jaw at birth
- Erosion of the joint over time
- Growth disorders
- An improper bite, sometimes due to teeth alignment irregularities
Understanding the symptoms of TMJ can help people seek treatment early and limit the amount of discomfort and pain.
The most common symptoms of TMJ disorder include pain located in the jaw, and the surrounding muscles in the face and neck.
Other TMJ Symptoms Include Some of the Following:
- Locking of the jaw or stiffness in the TMJ joint
- Swelling on one or both sides of the face
- Decreased range of motion in the TMJ joint without pain
- A clicking or popping sound in the temporomandibular joint
- Wearing down of teeth, or a shift in the way the upper and lower teeth align
- Earaches or ringing in the ear, referred to as tinnitus
- Pain in the neck and shoulders
These TMJ symptoms may be present on just one side or both sides of the face. It’s important to seek treatment if any of these symptoms, or a combination of them, are present.
TMJ Treatment Methods
Diagnosing TMJ involves a physical examination and a discussion about the symptoms. Some physicians or dentists will use x-rays or an MRI of the bones and soft-tissue in the temporomandibular joint to identify the problem.
Depending on the severity of a person’s condition, most treatment methods will start with conservative approaches first.
Effective TMJ Treatment Methods Include:
1. Avoid Certain Foods
It is recommended to avoid certain foods that may cause or exacerbate TMJ symptoms.
Hard or chewy foods, including gum, which place excessive stress on the jaw should be avoided in favor of softer foods. This is especially important while resting the jaw whenever the soft-tissue in the temporomandibular joint is irritated or inflamed.
2. Over-the-Counter Anti-Inflammatory Pain Medications
Anti-Inflammatory pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) taken as prescribed, can help reduce both pain and swelling in the temporomandibular joint, as well as the head, face, and neck.
3. Apply Cold or Moist Heat Packs
Taking the time to apply cold or hot packs to the jaw area for 10 to 15 minutes, several times a day, will help reduce inflammation and pain in the soft-tissue of the temporomandibular joint.
4. Physical Therapy
Physical Therapy can utilize TMJ exercises that will strengthen the jaw, provide greater range of motion, and relax or stretch the jaw. TMJ exercises may also reduce the clicking and popping noises or sensation in the joint to promote healing in the temporomandibular joint.
5. Mouth Guards and Oral Appliances
There are specialized Mouth Guards and Oral Appliances worn over the top and bottom teeth that help provide stability in the jaw. Other types may optimize the position of the jaw’s alignment. Night guards are only worn at night when sleeping, while splints can be worn at all times.
6. EPAT / Shockwave Therapy for TMJ Symptoms
EPAT / Shockwave Therapy for TMJ symptoms is an advanced treatment method for both acute and chronic cases.
Extracorporeal Pulse Activation Technology (EPAT) uses pulsed acoustic sound waves directed at the area of discomfort to reduce pain and inflammation.
It is also called Shockwave Therapy, which is short for Extracorporeal Shock Wave Therapy, because it produces energy shockwaves for healing and recovery.
EPAT / Shockwave Therapy is a non-invasive approach that does not require medication, anesthesia, or downtime like surgical methods, and there is no risk of infection or scarring.
According to Dr. Adam Wagner, D.C., EPAT / Shockwave Therapy is an ideal solution for TMJ that causes new collagen and blood vessels to grow so the TMJ joint heals itself and reduces pain.
With Acupuncture, thin needles are inserted into various places in the body, which help produce a response in the central nervous system to engage the body’s natural healing process. Acupuncture needles can also be inserted around the trigger points surrounding the area of discomfort to reduce pain and increase range of motion.
8. Botox Injections for TMJ Symptoms
Botox Injections of botulinum toxin, which goes by the brand name “Botox” may reduce muscle mass and inflammation in the temporomandibular joint by relaxing the jaw. Botox is often used in conjunction with other TMJ treatment methods.
9. TMJ Arthroscopy Surgery
TMJ Arthroscopic Surgery requires a surgeon to make a tiny incision in front of the ear to examine the temporomandibular joint with a camera. A surgeon may then remove inflamed tissue or realign certain parts of the joint without making a larger incision.
10. Open-Joint Surgery
Open-Joint Surgery is the most invasive TMJ treatment method and will require significant downtime during recovery. It also comes with the greatest risk of scarring, infection, and other problems. A surgeon will make a long incision in which tools are inserted to repair the structure, remove tumors, or bone chips that may be causing TMJ symptoms.
The TMJ treatment methods outlined here provide a variety of non-invasive and surgical approaches for healing and recovery. For best results, it’s important to speak with a doctor or dentist at the first sign of TMJ symptoms before the pain becomes even more uncomfortable.
Photo Credit: Temporomandibular Joint image by Patrick J. Lynch