Problems with your jaw joint? You may have a temporomandibular joint disorder. It’s a mouthful, yes! But fortunately there’s a lot you can do about it.
Without your temporomandibular joint you would be unable to talk, eat or yawn.
This joint is a complex structure situated between the base of your skull and your lower jaw. It’s a joint that can open and close like a hinge and can also slide forward, backwards and from side to side.
Unfortunately, this joint can be affected in numerous uncomfortable ways – all of which can have major consequences for you.
According to the US National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) can cause:
- Stiff jaw muscles
- Pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and the muscles that control jaw movement in the jaw, face or neck
- Limited ability to move the jaw
- Locking of the jaw
These can all have an impact on your daily functioning.
The causes of this condition
Sometimes trauma to the joint can cause traumatic arthritis or secondary degenerative arthritis, according to the Merck Manuals, especially in people who have myofascial pain syndrome (caused by tension, fatigue or spasm) but often the cause of TMJ is unknown.
It’s more common in women than in men, says the NIDCR, leading some people to think there may be a link between female hormones and TMJ.
TMJ may be linked to the muscles working the joint, or the problem may lie in the joint itself. Over- activity of the jaw muscles, such as when you clench or grind your teeth could be one of the causes.
Misalignment of the jaw is also thought to be a cause, but this isn’t conclusive.
Arthritis could also be at the root of the problem, and in older people the culprit is often osteoarthritis, says the Merck Manuals. It also mentions that 17% of those with rheumatoid arthritis will be affected by
TMJ, but that it is usually one of the last joints to be affected by this condition.
Symptoms of TMJ
The most common symptom initially is a dull ache in the joint and the surrounding areas, says the Consumer Guide to Dentistry.
Other symptoms they mention include the following:
- Pain in the jaw that’s more pronounced early in the morning and late in the afternoon
- Clicking or popping sounds when opening or closing the mouth
- Earache and sensitive teeth – seemingly without cause
- Swelling on the side of the face
- Stiffness in the jaw and pain when chewing or yawning
- Frequent tension headaches
- Disk displacement within the joint
Treatment of TMJ
A dentist is the most logical person to diagnose TMJ. If there are further complications, they will refer you to pain specialists, ear, nose and throat specialists or maxillo-facial specialists.
Sometimes this condition resolves itself with simple home therapies, says the TMJ Association. These would include the eating of soft foods, avoiding extreme jaw movements, applying ice or moist heat and doing simple, jaw-stretching exercises. Sometimes learning new stress-relieving techniques can also make a difference.
Unless caused by a form of arthritis, TMJ is temporary, and the NIH warns against invasive surgery that could cause permanent changes in the position and structure of the jaw and teeth.
Short-term use of painkillers or anti-inflammatory medications can provide relief. Your dentist might also recommend that you use a bite guard that fits over your upper or lower teeth. These are also known as stabilisation splints. The NIH warns that you should watch out for permanent changes in your bite.
Surgery and implants, which change your bite, haven’t been proved to be effective in the treatment of TMJ. They’re irreversible, so all other options need to be considered first, says the NIH.
If arthritis is the cause of your TMJ, a rheumatologist should be able to advise you on possible treatment of this affected joint.
READ MORE about Joint Health.