Asian woman sitting across from dentist looking at scans of teeth on a computer screen.

What is TMJ and How is it Treated?

November 10, 2021

TMJ generally refers to a group of health problems related to your jaw, but it is also the abbreviation for the temporomandibular joint itself.

The joint is found on both sides of your head in front of your ears and is essential for eating and speaking. As you can probably imagine, disorders that affect this joint can cause a host of problems, from jaw pain and popping to ongoing headaches and difficulty eating.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) estimates that at least 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ.

In honor of TMJ Awareness Month, we aim to shed light on this common oral condition — what causes it, the signs to look for, how it’s diagnosed, and the ways it can be treated to alleviate pain and prevent long-term issues.

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What causes TMJ dysfunction?

The cause of a TMJ dysfunction can vary from person to person. In many cases, it can be difficult to even determine the cause since symptoms of TMJ often appear for no apparent reason. That said, factors that might lead to TMJ could include one or more of the following:

  • Genetics
  • Arthritis
  • Jaw injury or dislocation
  • Teeth clenching and grinding (bruxism)
  • Joint or muscular problems present at birth
  • Prolonged stress leading to muscle tension
  • Poor posture that results in strain on the face and neck
  • Certain connective tissue disease that might affect the jaw

Temporomandibular joint dysfunction also appears to be much more common in women than in men, particularly in women between the ages of 19 and 49. A recent survey conducted by the TMJ Association found that 90% of people affected by TMJ pain were women in this age range.

The reasons for this aren’t entirely known but some theories include differences in bone structure and muscle density, as well as the ways women manage and respond to stress. Scientists have also been exploring a potential link between female hormones and the increased chance of developing painful TMJ.

Signs and Symptoms of TMJ

A variety of symptoms have been tied to TMJ, and they can differ depending on the cause and/or severity of the condition. These can show up on one or both sides of the face and usually involve some level of jaw pain, tenderness, or stiffness. Beyond that, symptoms can include any or a combination of the following:

  • Jaw pain, tenderness, and stiffness
  • Jaw popping, clicking, and/or grating
  • Lock jaw
  • Pain or difficulty when chewing
  • Pain in the neck and shoulders
  • Pain, pressure, or ringing in the ears
  • Chronic headaches
  • Dizziness and/or vision problems
  • A bite that feels misaligned

How is TMJ diagnosed?

According to Terrie Cowley, President and cofounder of the TMJ Association, diagnosing TMJ can be a challenge. “Currently, there isn’t a simple scientifically validated test to diagnose TMJ disorders,” she tells HealthCentral. “A diagnosis is based upon the patient’s description of pain and jaw dysfunction, [medical] history, and examination of the head, neck, face, and jaw.”

Some people may experience jaw clicking or mild difficulty when moving their jaws, but they don’t report feeling any pain. If this is the case, seeking a diagnosis may not be necessary. Even occasional discomfort in the jaw is common and often goes away on its own.

However, if pain is persistent or moving the jaw becomes increasingly more difficult, Cowley recommends first consulting a medical doctor to rule out other common conditions or diseases that might be causing the symptoms. Your doctor might then recommend that you visit your dentist to look further into a TMJ diagnosis. This could involve certain imaging tests, such as x-rays, CT scans, or MRIs of the jaw.

How to treat TMJ

Cowley explains that most TMJ symptoms subside over time and can be addressed with simple self-care techniques. The NIDCR echoes this sentiment, saying that less is often best in treating TMJ as opposed to more aggressive treatments that could lead to unnecessary permanent changes in the bite or jaw.

The NIDCR recommends the following at-home remedies to ease the symptoms of TMJ:

  • Eating soft foods
  • Applying ice packs
  • Using a night guard if you clench or grind your teeth
  • Avoiding extreme or repetitive movements of the jaw, such as wide yawning and gum chewing
  • Practicing techniques to reduce stress in the face, jaw, neck, and shoulders, such as gentle stretching and massaging

Even if TMJ symptoms persist, experts still recommend using only “the most conservative, reversible treatments possible.” These could include over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, Botox to relax the muscles around the jaw, or short-term use of a stabilization splint (emphasis on short-term).

In the rarest of cases, your dentist may suggest treatments that cause permanent changes to the bite or jaw, such as orthodontics, adjustment of the occlusal (chewing) surfaces of the teeth, or even surgery. However, keep in mind that the NIDCR strongly recommends against these options as they may make symptoms even worse and “there have been no long-term clinical trials to study the safety and effectiveness of surgical treatments for TMJ disorders.”

As always, it’s important to speak with your dentist about what you’re experiencing so that you can discuss your options and decide on a treatment plan that’s right for you. Be sure to ask, and look for, a dental care provider who has experience treating pain related to these conditions.

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