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TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint) Disorders

What Is TMJ?

The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint that connects your mandible (lower jaw) to your skull. The joint can be found on both sides of your head in front of your ears. It allows your jaw to open and close, enabling you to speak and eat.

This abbreviation is also used to refer to a group of health problems related to your jaw. These disorders can cause tenderness at the joint, facial pain, and difficulty moving the joint. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, as many as 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ. TMJ is more common among women than men. These disorders are treatable, but there are many different possible causes. This can make diagnosis difficult.

Keep reading to learn more about TMJ. You should discuss any concerns with your doctor.

What Causes TMJ?

In many cases, it’s not known what causes a TMJ disorder. Trauma to the jaw or joint may play a role. There are also other health conditions that may contribute to the development of TMJ. These include:

  • arthritis
  • erosion of the joint
  • habitual grinding or clenching of the teeth
  • structural jaw problems present at birth

There are some other factors that are often associated with the development of TMJ, but they haven’t been proven to cause TMJ. These include:

  • the use of orthodontic braces
  • poor posture that strains the muscles of the neck and face
  • prolonged stress
  • poor diet
  • lack of sleep

What Are the Symptoms of TMJ?

The symptoms of TMJ disorders depend on the severity and cause of your condition. The most common symptom of TMJ is pain in the jaw and surrounding muscles. Other symptoms typically associated with these disorders include:

  • pain that can be felt in the face or neck
  • stiffness in the muscles of the jaw
  • limited movement of the jaw
  • locking of the jaw
  • clicking or popping sound from the TMJ site
  • shift in the jaw, changing the way that the upper and lower teeth align (called malocclusion) 

Symptoms may show up on just one side of the face, or both.

How Is TMJ Diagnosed?

TMJ disorders can be difficult to diagnose. There are no standard tests to diagnose these disorders. Your doctor may refer you to a dentist or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to diagnose your condition.

Your doctor may examine your jaw to see if there is swelling or tenderness if you have symptoms of a TMJ disorder. Your doctor may also use several different imaging tests. These can include:

  • X-rays of the jaw
  • CT scan of the jaw to see the bones and joint tissues
  • MRI of the jaw to see if there are problems with the structure of the jaw

How Is TMJ Treated?

In most cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders can be treated with self care practices at home. To ease the symptoms of TMJ you can:

  • eat soft foods
  • use ice to reduce swelling
  • reduce jaw movements
  • avoid chewing gum and tough foods (like beef jerky)
  • reduce stress
  • use jaw stretching exercises to help improve jaw movement

You may need help from your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve with these treatments. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe or recommend the following:

  • pain medications (such as ibuprofen)
  • medications to relax the muscles of the jaw (such as Flexeril, Soma, or Valium)
  • medications to help reduce swelling in the jaw (corticosteroid drugs)
  • stabilization splints or bite guards to prevent teeth grinding
  • Botox to reduce tension in the muscle and nerves of the jaw
  • cognitive behavioral therapy to help reduce stress

In rare cases, your doctor may recommend surgery or other procedures to treat your condition. Procedures can include:

  • corrective dental treatment to improve your bite and align your teeth
  • arthrocentesis, which removes fluid and debris from the joint
  • surgery to replace the joint

Procedures used to treat this condition may, in some cases, make your symptoms worse. Talk to your doctor about the potential risks of these procedures.

How Can TMJ Be Prevented?

You may not be able to prevent TMJ from developing, but you might be able to reduce symptoms by lowering your stress levels. It could be helpful to try to stop grinding your teeth if this is an issue for you. Possible solutions for teeth grinding include wearing a mouth guard at night and taking muscle relaxants. You may also help prevent teeth grinding by reducing your overall stress and anxiety through counseling, exercise, and diet.

Outlook for TMJ Disorders

The outlook for a TMJ disorder depends on the cause of the problem. TMJ can be successfully treated in many people with at-home remedies, such as changing posture or reducing stress. If your condition is caused by a chronic (long term) disease such as arthritis, lifestyle changes may not be enough. Arthritis can wear down the joint over time and increase pain.

Most cases of TMJ warrant changes in lifestyle habits, possibly combined with medications to ease any pain and discomfort. Aggressive treatments are rarely needed. Talk to your doctor about your options to determine what treatment is right for you.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Darla Burke and Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: May 26, 2015: Steven Kim, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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