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Women holding a sore jaw

Frustrated by jaw pain? What you need to know about TMJ disorders

You use your TMJ every single day: to eat, talk, yawn and even breathe. But you may not actually notice the joint until you experience jaw pain.

If you have a sore jaw that won’t go away, consult with a TMJ specialist as soon as possible. The earlier you seek treatment, the faster you can recover.

What is temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder?

TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. The TMJ connects your lower jaw to your skull, just below the temple and in front of the ear. This hinge joint gives your mouth its range of motion, letting you move your lower jaw up, down and side-to-side.

When you have a TMJ disorder — a type of temporomandibular disorder or TMD — the movement of these joints is affected, immobilizing and/or causing pain to the area. Commonly this disorder is incorrectly referred to as just TMJ, which is the joint itself. The proper term is temporomandibular disorder or TMJ disorder.  These issues are the second most common type of orofacial pain, following dental issues.

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 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 like arthritis, which can deteriorate the cartilage in the joint.

How to know something’s wrong with your TMJ: Symptoms

The most common symptom of TMJ disorders is pain in your jaw, face and around your ear when you eat, talk or open your mouth. Ranging from mild to severe, this pain can be sudden or build up slowly over time, with some people suffering for years before seeking treatment.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Additional pain or soreness below the jaw, even down your neck and shoulders.
  • Trouble fully opening, closing or clenching your jaw.
  • Clicking, popping or grinding sounds when you move the joint.
  • Awkward closing of the mouth, feeling like your upper and lower teeth are misaligned.
  • Swelling or bruising on your face.
  • Toothaches or earaches.
  • Dizziness or constant headaches.
  • Hearing problems or a ringing in your ear (tinnitus).

How to diagnose a TMJ disorder

Diagnosis of a TMJ disorder is based on a description of symptoms and a physical exam. A physiotherapist, doctor or dentist may feel along your jaw, ask you to open, close and move your jaw, in order to observe the range of motion, take note of any abnormal sounds and identify points of pain. An x-ray or MRI may be recommended if they believe there are issues with the bones or discs of the joint.

What are the causes of TMJ disorders?

Most people have a combination of factors that lead to a TMJ disorder or TMD

1. Grinding

Grinding your teeth at night or during the day can cause increased pressure on the TMJ. Muscles can become overused, leading to asymmetrical movement. Some people are habitual grinders, while others go through periods of grinding due to added stress or anxiety.

2. Trauma

Getting hit in the face, head or neck, or being involved in a car accident (i.e. whiplash), may lead to a TMJ disorder. The force of such an impact can dislocate the disc or soft cushion that normally protects the socket of this joint.

3. Dental work

Having your mouth open for long periods of time during dental work can cause strain on the TMJ. Wisdom teeth extraction, for an example, can lead to TMJ pain.

4. Misalignment

Some people have occlusal problems, meaning their teeth close or bite down improperly (i.e. overbite, underbite). This misalignment can lead to pain in the TMJ and the muscles around it.

Contributing causes may also include arthritis, as well as poor diet and posture. For example, with desk work, if you spend most of the day leaning forward to look at a computer—and even resting your head on your hand as you do so—you may strain the muscles in the face and neck, leading to a TMJ disorder.

TMJ massage to alleviate pain in sore jaw muscles

Getting TMJ relief: Seven effective TMJ treatments

A physiotherapist or TMJ specialist, will assess the cause and severity of your TMJ disorder and create a unique treatment plan. TMJ exercises focus on improving strength, flexibility and range of motion, while also managing pain. These may include:

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

Most people find solutions through physical therapy, as well as consultations with their dentist, so reconstructive surgery is often not necessary. In some cases where surgery is required, physiotherapy can help with recovery.

Recovery times vary depending on the severity of your TMJ disorder. Acute pain can resolve quickly through physiotherapy, in as little as six weeks. Chronic conditions may require more sessions for your initial recovery, as well as occasional visits to maintain proper movement and prevent reoccurrence.

You may also want to consult with your dentist before and during physiotherapy treatment, in case they need to prescribe a fitted mouth guard to help prevent grinding and clenching at night. For more information about the different appliances that might help prevent TMJ disorders and medications that might help with TMJ pain (both over-the-counter and prescription), check out the New York Times’ Health Guide on TMJ disorders and treatments.

Ways to help ease TMJ pain from home

While following your prescribed treatment plan, there are simple things you can do at home to ease jaw pain and help with recovery.

  • Try to sleep on your back.
  • Avoid food that’s difficult to chew, such as tough meat, hard candies, raw vegetables and crusty bread.
  • Replace gum chewing with fresh mints or breath strips.
  • Breathe through your nose.
  • Cut up your food into smaller bites, minimizing how wide you need to open your mouth to eat.