Pain in your jaw? Review the common signs and symptoms of TMJ

Chewing a tough piece of steak. Tensing up during a scary scene in a movie. Accidentally smacking your face against a door.

Ouch! These are all things that can make your jaw feel a little achy, if not downright painful. However, the pain doesn’t usually last and you’re back to tip-top shape within a few minutes or hours.

But what if that pain doesn’t go away, or gets worse over time? You might be suffering from TMJ.

What is TMJ?

TMJ pain may be caused by a combination of factors, like trauma (from accidents or fights), arthritis and even genetics.

TMJ is the acronym for the temporomandibular joint that connects your jawbone (mandible) to the temporal bones on both sides of your head. It works like a door hinge, allow you to open and close your mouth.

So, doesn’t everyone have TMJ?

Technically, yes! Everyone with a jaw has a TMJ, but it’s evolved into the generic term dentists, doctors and patients often use to describe a temporomandibular disorder (TMD) that causes pain in the joint and muscles around the jaw. TMDs are mostly associated with jaw pain, but the term includes other pain associated with the nerves, cartilage or joint fluid around the jaw and face.

What Causes TMJ?

TMJ — and related TMDs — are estimated to affect about 25 percent of the population, with the majority being women between 20 and 40, but surprisingly researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why it happens.

Teeth grinding and jaw clenching were once believed to be the main causes of TMJ, but if you have TMJ pain, it may be caused by a combination of factors, like trauma (from accidents or fights), arthritis and even genetics.

TMJ Warning Signs

The warning signs and symptoms of TMJ vary from person to person, but can include:

  • Tension headaches and/or migraines
  • Popping or clicking sounds when opening and closing the mouth
  • Joints that “lock” when opened, or are difficult to close
  • Sinus pain
  • Arthritis around the TMJ
  • Cracked, worn or broken teeth
  • Condylar degeneration

TMJ sufferers also report feeling pain or a “grating” sensation when they chew.

When to See a Dentist About TMJ Pain

The good news is that not everyone with TMJ needs to high-tail it to their dentists. People often “grow out” of the TMJ and stop experiencing pain and symptoms over time.

You shouldn’t ignore the pain, though, especially if it’s persistent and makes eating, drinking and talking difficult — or worse, you can’t open or close your jaw correctly.

When you go in for TMJ pain, your dentist will examine your mouth and check the muscles in your face, jaw and neck, along with the inside of your mouth for signs of teeth grinding. He’ll also look at the range of motion of your jaw, or the distance you can open or close your mouth.

Once diagnosed, most patients with TMJ are treated with medication (like ibuprofen and muscle relaxers) a mouthguard (to prevent grinding), neck and jaw stretching, rest and possibly even a soft-food diet to give the jaw a break from chewing. Cognitive therapy is sometimes recommended to help patients figure out the triggers for pain (like teeth grinding from stress or biting fingernails).

The most extreme cases might require surgery, ranging from minimally invasive procedures using needles to move joint fluid, to open-joint surgery to replace the TMJ.

How to Treat TMJ Pain at Home

Home treatment for TMJ pain includes a lot of the same treatments used by dentists, including regular jaw and neck stretching and pain relievers. Also, avoid foods that require you to chew a lot, including gum, and swap them out for softer foods that are easier to cut.

Simply relaxing with deep breaths can help relieve some of the tension you feel in your jaw — and stop the pain, too!

And don’t hesitate to contact us to make an appointment if you’re experiencing TMJ pain.

Posted In: Oral & Dental Health Tips