Man with jaw pain

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) is a condition affecting the joints and muscles responsible for jaw function. If you have TMJ, you’re not alone — an estimated 10 million Americans suffer from this disorder. Although TMJ symptoms can vary in degrees of severity, cases typically include:

  • Clicking and popping sound in the jaw
  • Difficulty opening and closing the mouth
  • Aching pain in the jaw
  • Pain around the ear
  • Discomfort while chewing

What Causes TMJ?

There is no single cause of TMJ, but rather a variety of factors that can play a role in the development and severity of TMJ. Injury to the jaw is one possible cause of TMJ. However, some experts believe poorly aligned orthodontics may also be to blame. If you grind your teeth at night, you’re more likely to get a TMJ disorder. Females suffer from TMJ more than males do, leading some researchers to believe there may be a correlation between this condition and female hormones.

TMJ can also stem from another condition in the body. Fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis are two conditions that may present with TMJ discomfort. These conditions cause inflammation in the muscles and joints throughout the body — including the jaw area. If you suspect you may have an inflammatory and autoimmune disorder, see your doctor immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment. Treating the source can go a long way towards alleviating the symptoms associated with TMJ.

What Happens if TMJ is Left Untreated?

Man with TMJ disorder

There can be a host of serious, adverse effects if TMJ is left untreated. Although some cases of TMJ may improve gradually or even spontaneously, others often become worse. Degradation of the jaw joint is one long-term possibility; wearing away of the cartilage surrounding the joints is another. The longer TMJ is left untreated, the longer the sufferer is in pain.

TMJ sufferers often have trouble chewing because of the pain and stiffness related to the condition, which over the long term can cause nutritional deficiencies. Insomnia is another common result of untreated TMJ — when the two exist together, one’s quality of life can decrease dramatically. Although rare, permanent problems with jaw mobility can result.

How TMJ is Diagnosed

Woman getting jaw x rayed

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, there are currently no set standards for diagnosing temporomandibular joint disorders. As previously mentioned, it is a good idea to see your doctor for a medical examination to ensure that no underlying medical conditions are causing TMJ discomfort. Afterwards, you will want to make sure to follow up with a board certified maxillofacial surgeon and TMJ expert to get to the bottom of your jaw pain.

After reviewing your medical and dental history, other diagnostic measures may be used to determine a TMJ diagnosis. Imaging studies are one such route towards diagnosing TMJ, as is a detailed manual examination of the head and neck area. Once a diagnosis is made, both short and long-term treatment options can be explored.

TMJ Treatment Options

There is a wide variety of treatment options for TMJ disorders. The first option for most patients will include the most conservative, least invasive treatment options and surgery will only be recommended as a last resort for severe cases. Examples of reversible treatments include:

  • Stabilization Splints
  • Steroid Injections
  • Anti-Inflammatory Medication
  • Lifestyle Modifications

Woman using night guard

A stabilization splint, also known as a night guard, is a clear plastic mouth guard fitting over teeth to keep them apart. This will prevent grinding and keep muscles relaxed and properly positioned. Although a night guard may take a little getting used to, many patients find they can easily adjust and sleep even better than before using the implement.

Steroids and anti-inflammatory medications are also often used when treating aggressive cases of TMJ. These treatments can relax the jaw muscles, alleviate inflammation, and soothe related pain. When it comes to lifestyle changes, there are a variety of things patients can do to work in harmony with professional treatments. These include:

  • Eating softer foods
  • Reducing stress
  • Rest
  • Jaw exercises (as directed by a doctor)
  • Application of cold and heat
  • Gentle massages

Also, some patients choose to try alternative therapies like biofeedback and acupuncture to relieve TMJ pain. Although these options can be part of a healthy lifestyle, they should be used in conjunction with your current medical treatment plans. A well-rounded treatment plan should treat each patient as a unique individual depending on their needs.

In rare cases, surgery is required to correct TMJ disorders. There are currently only two different types of TMJ surgery options available. Arthroscopy will often be the first choice, as it is less invasive, and open joint surgery. The latter is usually only recommended for patients with degenerative TMJ, or TMJ that has failed to respond to all other treatment methods.

If you think you may have TMJ, visit your doctor to learn more about the condition and find the right treatment option for you.