Throughout our lifetimes, our jaws and their structures are expected to do many things. As our jaws open and close each day for chewing foods, speaking, breathing, and yawning, a complex series of mechanisms control the movement of the lower jaw. The two critical components of the jaw structure, allowing it to move freely, are the temporomandibular joints. Over time or through injury or disease, these joints can begin to break down, causing pain when speaking or swallowing. The pain and loss of mobility in the jaw joints is referred to as temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMJ for short.
What are the Symptoms of TMJ?
The lower jaw articulates on the skull from the temporomandibular joint. It operates much like a sliding hinge. This joint is found below and just in front of the ear on each side of the face. When TMJ causes pain, the discomfort may be felt in the jaw, the ears, and the muscles of the face. Chronic soreness or sharp pain when chewing are common symptoms. Often, the pain is accompanied by clicking, audible popping, or rubbing sensations as the jaw moves, usually when chewing or speaking. In worst case scenarios, the joints can lock, creating difficulty in opening or closing the mouth. Typically, however, the pain may only temporarily limit the movement of the jaw, if at all.
What Causes TMJ?
There are many factors that may lead to TMJ. Although the causes are poorly understood in the medical/dental community, there is some evidence that age, disease, or misalignment of the teeth and jaw structures may contribute to the disorder. Arthritis is one of the diseases that may potentially interfere with smooth jaw function, producing pain. Orthodontic appliances like braces may lead to the development of TMJ as the teeth and jaws go through realignment phases. And, over time, wear and tear of the cartilage surrounding the jaw joints breaks down, contributing to loss of motion and discomfort in those joints. More scientific study is needed to pinpoint the specific causes of the disorder.
One of the common misconceptions about TMJ is that people who clench their jaws or grind their teeth, such as grinding due to stress, are at risk of developing the disorder. Tooth grinding, referred to as bruxism by dental practitioners, can cause TMJ, but this is not always the case. Many tooth grinders never develop TMJ, and many TMJ sufferers did not grind their teeth or clench their jaws.
What are Treatment Options for TMJ?
Treatment for TMJ and other disorders of the jaw structures requires the assistance of a dental professional. Most dentists have some experience in helping patients overcome the discomfort of TMJ, but severe cases may require a dental practitioner specially trained in treating the disorder and its symptoms.
The first step in any TMJ treatment protocol is to diagnose the underlying symptoms and potential causes. Dentists will check the alignment of the teeth with special gauges and perform range-of-motion investigations to determine what, if any, loss of mobility is experienced by the patient.
In many cases, TMJ and its symptoms resolve on their own without dental intervention. Most cases respond well to conservative treatments, such as the wearing of mouth guards while sleeping or subtle realignments of the teeth. Anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving medications may be prescribed to help reduce the discomfort associated with TMJ. Finally, in severe cases that do not resolve on their own, dental surgery may be required. This is especially true when patients suffer extreme pain and loss of motion in the jaw joints. With proper dental treatment and aftercare, most patients that suffer from TMJ can return to pain-free lives.