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Jaw pain: could it be your temporomandibular joint?

Krista McIntyre

Reg. PT., M.Sc.PT., H.B.K. | National Director of Program Development, Specialty Services

Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2020

Talking, chewing and swallowing are all actions that involve your temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which connects your jawbone to your skull. Located below the temple and in front of the ear, this hinge joint gives your mouth its range of motion. It lets you move your lower jaw up, down and side-to-side.

TMJ disorders can be caused by jaw injuries, overuse, arthritis and other factors. If you’re experiencing symptoms such as :

  • Pain when chewing
  • Clicking or popping sounds  when you open or close your mouth
  • Headaches
  • Your jaw joint locking
  • Pain in your ear, face, jaw and neck

You should consult a TMJ specialist as soon as possible, as the earlier you seek treatment, the faster you can recover.

Understanding the three main types of temporomandibular joint disorders

There are three main types of temporomandibular joint disorders:

1. Muscle disorders

The most common type. This TMJ disorder involves pain in the muscles that control the function of your jaw, neck and shoulders.

2. Derangement disorders

A degenerative TMJ disorder that involves a disruption or imbalance in the inner workings of the jaw, such as a dislocation of a disc or a damaged bone.

3. Degenerative disorders

Degenerative disorders are connected to the overall wear and tear of the TMJ through conditions such as arthritis, which can deteriorate the cartilage in the joint.

A physical evaluation can be necessary to diagnose a TMJ disorder. A physiotherapist, doctor or dentist can feel your jaw and ask you to open, close and move it to observe its range of motion, take note of any abnormal sounds and identify pain points. An MRI or x-ray is sometimes recommended by your healthcare professional if they suspect there might be issues with your bones or discs of your joint.

How to get pain relief

After a thorough evaluation, a physiotherapist or TMJ specialist will develop a personalized treatment plan for you depending on the cause of your TMJ disorder and its severity. Recovery times can vary depending on your disorder. If you’re experiencing acute pain, it can resolve in as little as six weeks through physiotherapy.

To find a solution to your problem, physiotherapy and consultations with a dentist are usually enough, so reconstructive surgery is often not necessary. When surgery is required, physiotherapy can help you with recovery.

TMJ exercises can help relieve pain by improving your flexibility, range of motion and strength. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Dental Research, for people with TMJ disc displacement, performing TMJ exercises increases mouth opening range more than using a mouth guard.

TMJ exercises can include:

  • Jaw, head and neck exercises
  • Manual stretching
  • Relaxation and breathing exercises
  • Posture correction
  • TMJ massage to relax and lengthen muscles
  • Heat or ice therapy
  • Ultrasound and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy

Simple things you can do at home can also help alleviate jaw pain and improve recovery. These include:

  • Avoiding food that’s difficult to chew, like hard candies, tough meat or bread and raw vegetables
  • Breathing through your nose.
  • Replacing gum with fresh mints or breath strips
  • Sleeping on your back
  • Avoiding biting your nails
  • Cutting up your food into smaller bites
  • Limiting large jaw movements, like yawning or singing

You don’t have to live with pain

If jaw pain is bothering you, consult a TMJ specialist as soon as possible. You can schedule an appointment by contacting a Lifemark clinic near you or visiting Lifemark.ca.

For further guidance, check out our TMJ section on Lifemark.ca.

Krista McIntyre

Reg. PT., M.Sc.PT., H.B.K. | National Director of Program Development, Specialty Services

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