TMJ, only three little letters, but oh can they pack a punch. TMJ is actually the abbreviation for the temporomandibular joint, which is what connects your mandible (or jaw) to your skull. However, it has come to be associated with TMJ syndrome or TMD, temporomandibular disorder. Both refer to a condition which causes an individual to experience pain in the jaw or have difficulty biting and chewing. It’s something that, according the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, affects as many as 10 million Americans.
So How Can I Tell if I Have TMJ Syndrome?
TMJ symptoms can vary according to how severe each case may be. However, in general, most TMJ patients report at least one of the following complaints:
Pain around the joint, which is often made worse by speaking, chewing or opening your mouth widely
Popping or clicking sounds that can be heard when moving the jaw, sometimes accompanied by pain
The lower jaw getting stuck or “locking” either while open or while closed
Aching pains in the head, teeth or ear
Tinnitus (a constant ringing in the ears)
Could I Be at Risk?
While anyone can get TMJ syndrome, more women are affected than men and studies have found that it’s also most commonly observed in those between the ages of 15 and 25 years old. It’s also been found that individuals with increased sensitivity to mild pain are more likely to report symptoms of TMJ syndrome, as are those who have another chronic pain condition.
Is TMJ Caused by Clenching Your Jaw?
While there’s yet to be any definitive answer as to what causes TMJ syndrome, there are many things that are thought to trigger symptoms. It’s typically associated with pressure being put on the teeth, whether that’s through grinding and clenching (often as a result of excess stress) or some kind of injury to the area.
Sometimes TMJ syndrome occurs as a result of another underlying condition, such as arthritis or, in rare cases, cancer.
Can TMJ Be Treated?
TMJ treatment varies from patient to patient and only a professional dentist will be able to advise you on your personal condition. The root cause of your TMJ symptoms will determine the appropriate treatment. For example, if anxiety or stress is causing you to grind or clench your teeth, your dentist may prescribe anti-anxiety medications to help you relax your jaw. In more severe cases, your dentist may suggest TMJ surgery.
What About Surgery?
There are three main types of TMJ surgery:
Arthrocentesis: this is a minor procedure that is done under general anesthesia, where the dentist unlocks your jaw by cleaning out the joint.
Arthroscopy: this is also performed under general anesthesia, and the dentist makes a small incision in front of your ear in order to better examine your joint.
Open-Joint Surgery: where arthroscopy is not possible, your dentist may need to open up the entire joint to give them better access.
Are There Any Other Ways to Relieve the Symptoms?
For many patients, pain is the biggest struggle in living with TMJ syndrome. In that case, over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen may be enough to offer relief, and can also help to reduce any swelling in the area. Eating soft foods that require less chewing can also help to avoid putting excess pain-causing pressure on your teeth.
You can also try TMJ exercises at home to strengthen, stretch or relax your jaw:
Relaxed Jaw: place your tongue on the roof of your mouth and allow your teeth to come apart.
Goldfish: with your tongue on the roof of your mouth, place one finger on the area where your jaw meets your skull, and one on your chin, then drop your jaw while bringing it backwards towards your neck.
Resisted Open and Close: hold your jaw one knuckle-width apart and apply light pressure to your jaw using your index finger or thumb.
Chin Tucks: hold your shoulders back and bring your jaw backwards to create a “double chin” without tilting your head.
While TMJ syndrome can be a big enough concern to (literally) keep you up at night. There are ways to help identify just how complex a case can be, as well as treatments to help with the entire range of severity. Which is why if you think you might be experiencing any condition to any degree, it’s always a good idea to discuss TMJ syndrome with your dentist, so that together you can find the best solution.