What You Need to Know About TMJ

TMJ is one of the most common issues that millions of Americans live with. A multitude of people are living with TMJ that is undiagnosed and are just dealing with the pain coming from their jaw joints. The pain caused by TMJ can be slight, severe, short-lived or chronic which makes it difficult for both the patient and dentist. This article is going to break down everything you need to know about TMJ including what it is, how it is diagnosed, the common symptoms and effective solutions.

What is TMJ?

The temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, is found on each side of the jaw and acts as a sliding hinge to move the jaw up and down. This joint connects the jawbone to the skull in front of the ear and is very flexible allowing people to speak, yawn and chew. TMJ syndrome also referred to as just TMJ, is when there is pain in the joints and surrounding muscles that can be provoked by various medical problems, misalignment or inflammation. The pain ranges in severity depending on the person and restricts the movement in the jaw, often affecting other areas of the body.

Generally speaking, it is very difficult to determine exactly what causes TMJ as multiple factors can be involved including injury, genetics or arthritis. There is a relationship between people that experience TMJ and people that clench their jaw or grind their teeth, but there are many people who do that out of habit and do not experience TMJ. Since the location of the joints is in a central area close to the face, neck, ears, and skull, there are several different types of pain that can be experienced outside of the joint itself. This pain is also usually temporary making long term treatment options limited for most people.

What are the signs of TMJ?

Similarly to how there are various causes and types of pain associated with TMJ, there are also many different signs or symptoms related to TMJ. Obviously, pain in the jaw joints is a telltale sign, especially if it hurts when applying pressure to the area.  Many TMJ patients, however, also experience lingering aches in the ears and head as well as face and neck pain. These pains are often felt most when the jaw is active or when the joints are overstretched. It can also feel like migraine or ear infection symptoms or lead to dizziness, nausea, and muscle spasms.

Another common sign is if the jaw feels dislocated, locks up when it is either opened or closed or has a clicking sound accompanied by pain when doing normal activities like chewing. These symptoms often force patients to awkwardly open and close their mouth which can mess up their alignment. Sometimes, the face will become swollen in the area where the joint lives which is typically the only visible symptom patients report.

How does a Dentist diagnose TMJ?

Before considering treatments for TMJ, it is imperative a diagnosis is done. This diagnosis is typically done by a dentist however other professionals are able to as well. Since there are a wide variety of TMJ conditions and situations, there is currently not an accepted, standard test to diagnose TMJ. A dentist is able to identify the syndrome by the description of symptoms combined with a physical evaluation of the jaw and face.

X-rays are also a useful tool in examining the jaw, joints, and alignment of teeth to diagnose a patient with TMJ. Having a record of a patient’s medical and family history as well as past x-rays makes it much easier to identify TMJ. Biannual dental checkups are useful for more than just a teeth cleaning and this is one reason why regularly going to the dentist is recommended. If there are changes in an x-ray from previous visits or TMJ runs in a family, a dentist will be able to more accurately diagnose and treat their patients.

What are solutions for TMJ?

As previously mentioned, most TMJ pain is temporary and will go away without treatment, however, there are ways to mitigate the pain when it happens. It is important to consult a professional before attempting any at-home solutions as your dentist will recommend what is best for your specific situation.

There are several nonsurgical remedies to treat TMJ pain, often your dentist will suggest doing multiple at the same time. Starting with medication, your dentist will likely suggest you take over the counter pain relievers. If the problem persists, they can prescribe different types of medications including higher strength pain relievers, muscle relaxants or other prescriptions that can be used for pain intervention. Check out these other at-home TMJ pain relief options:

  • Applying ice and heat to the joint area
  • Eating soft foods that do not require aggressive chewing
  • Gently massaging and stretching the jaw, neck and face muscles
  • Stress management techniques including meditation

There are also nonsurgical and nondrug remedies including mouth guards, physical therapy, and counseling. Although doctors are not exactly sure why it works, it is common for patients with TMJ pain to benefit from wearing mouth guards. Physical therapy is used to help strengthen the jaw, joints, and muscles through exercises, heat and ice. For some patients, counseling allows them to figure out and understand what triggers their TMJ pain so they are able to learn to avoid it.

Surgical treatment for TMJ is always the last resort if other methods have failed. Your dentist will be able to determine which surgery is best but we will go through the most common surgical TMJ treatments. Depending on a patient’s situation, dental surgery may be needed to realign the jaw and teeth. Another option is arthrocentesis which is a minimally invasive surgery that inserts fluid into the joint to help remove inflammation and debris. Lastly, a surgery to completely replace or repair the jaw joint can be done but comes with higher risks than other surgical options.

The best way to prevent TMJ from occurring is by keeping up with your dental checkups. Your dentist is able to figure out the most effective treatment plan when your concerns are expressed and action is taken early. If you are experiencing what you suspect is TMJ, set up an appointment with the experts at Cavanaugh Dental.

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