You have likely heard of or know someone who suffers from TMJ pain. Perhaps you yourself have been diagnosed or you suspect that you suffer from TMJ pain. The truth is that TMJ pain is quite complex and often not fully understood.
What many do not know is that TMJ is not a diagnosis, although many people refer to the jaw pain as TMJ. Rather, TMJ refers to one of our most complex joints, the temporomandibular joint. The temoromandibular joint (or TMJ) is the joint responsible for the movement of your jaw. It connects your jaw bone to you skull. The TMJ consists of bone, muscles and cartilage that work to absorb shock, similar to the other joints in our body.
We have 2 temporomandibular joints, one on each side of the jaw. These joints are considered complex because of the mechanics behind the joint. The joint acts as a sliding hinge that allows for movement of your jaw in different directions. The TMJ allows the jaw to move up and down, side to side and in and out. This variety of movement allows us to yawn, chew our food, talk and grind our teeth.
The correct term for TMJ pain is temporomandibular joint disorder or TMD. This disorder is not uncommon and it affects approximately 15% of the adult population aged 20 to 40 years old. Statistically, women are more affected by TMD than men.
TMJ pain can be due to a number of different factors such as impact or injury, wearing down of the joint and arthritic changes and even genetics to some extent.
Many people are lead to believe that a strange clicking noise or a popping sound when opening their mouths wide is a sign of TMD. The truth is that many people report some form of sound or clicking when they open their mouths wide. This is not a sign of TMD.
Those who suffer from TMD will often note pain in the joints of their jaw. Ear pain is another sign of the development of TMD. If you have noticed a persistent earache, it is important that you are seen promptly by your primary care physician to first rule out the possibility of an inner ear infection.
Pain and stiffness in the muscles of your jaw and even in your neck can also be a sign of TMD. Many people who are diagnosed with TMD also state that they experience sharp pains when they are chewing.
The pain of TMD can also radiate. TMD pain can sometimes be felt in the face and travel to the ear and even to the neck. It is not uncommon for someone suffering from TMD to find it difficult to pinpoint where exactly the pain is originating from.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be suffering from TMD, the best first step would be to get properly diagnosed by your health care provider. Dentists and physicians who specialize in pain management or TMD specialist will perform physical assessments and tests to determine if you are in fact suffering from TMD. These assessments may include putting pressure on the joint, feeling and listening for abnormalities, as well as measuring the alignment of your upper and lower jaw.
Your care provider may also request dental x-rays, a CT scan or MRI of the joint to determine the root cause of your pain. This provides a much clearer image of the bones that are involved, as well as providing information on the condition of the cartilage in the joint.
Many cases of TMD will resolve on its own over time. Unfortunately this is not always the case for everyone. The levels of treatment offered will vary depending on the severity of the TMD, when and how the pain started, and on the overall health of the individual.
Over the counter medications such as Ibuprofen are common ways to manage pain associated with TMD. Other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) may also be prescribed by your primary care physician. In the case that NSAIDs do not control the pain, your physician may opt for other pain relievers.
Some physicians will trial muscle relaxers for the initial days or weeks after the start of jaw or TMD related pain in hopes that the pain will resolve itself. Other physicians encourage mouth guards or physical therapy to stretch and strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint.
If all of the above fail, more invasive procedures are then looked at.
Arthrocentesis is a procedure in which the excess fluid and the byproducts of inflammation are drained from the joint.
Injections of steroid directly to the joint are another option. The steroid is injected to the joint to target and decrease any swelling and inflammation in the surrounding areas.
If all else fails, your primary care provider may discuss with you surgical options. This treatment is best left as a last resort, as it does carry with it more risk to the procedure than the options listed above do. Open-joint surgery is used when the pain is due to a mechanical or structural problem that requires repair.
If you or someone you know is dealing with TMJ pain, talk with your primary care provider about possible causes and treatments for TMJ pain. Being properly diagnosed in the early stages of TMD can make all the difference.