The National Institutes of Health estimates that over 10 million people suffer from TMJ problems. It can affect both sexes, but it is most common in women during their childbearing years.
TMJ is an acronym for the temporomandibular joint. This joint is located in front of the ear and basically holds the jawbone in place. Ligaments and a specialized cartilage disc hold the joint together during movement. Like any joint in the body it can suffer injury due to trauma. This injury of the joint may result in headaches, earaches, toothaches, limited jaw movements, clicking, popping, and dislocations. Let’s talk about trauma.
Grinding of teeth can create undo force and traumatize the jaw joint. Clenching or grinding of teeth (called bruxism) can occur during stressful situations and even while we are asleep. Nighttime grinding during sleep is characteristically loud and evident to others nearby. It is generally not possible to duplicate the same force exerted by this nighttime grinding while you are awake. Your body’s conscious defenses will not allow for this harmful action. Your dentist can make you a mouth guard to keep the teeth from grinding while you sleep.
Misaligned teeth can force the joint to close and open in a pattern that it was not built to withstand. Rupture of the cartilage capsule that cushions the joint and tearing of the ligament that stabilizes the joint during range of motion can be the long-term result of this misalignment. Clicking and popping are the usual signs of damage. Occasional tenderness may ensue with episodes of severe pain and limited opening. Adjusting the bite or orthodontic treatment will help alleviate this problem. Mouth guards and anti-inflammatory medications may also be indicated for short-term relief.
Temporomandibular joints that are not working properly may be painful and noisy. Since joint stabilization (i.e. splint with a cast) is not feasible it is imperative to follow your dentist’s instructions to not aggravate the joint while it is trying to heal. This means staying on a soft diet (preferably blended food), cut food into small bites, not chewing gums or hard chewy foods, and not opening your mouth any wider than the thickness of your thumb. Applying moist heat to the joint 20 minutes twice a day is better than dry heat. If the joint is inflamed, ice packs are more beneficial than heat. Your dentist will advise you on your situation.
Most TMJ problems are actually muscular in origin. Muscle pains are caused by severe spasms and contractions that can pull against the fragile joint and cause migraine-like headaches. Relieving the muscular contractions will result in improvement. This is accomplished with a specialized mouth guard that is worn only on the front teeth that reduces the muscular contraction intensity.
Once the joint is damaged the body tries to repair itself. In most cases our body’s repair effort is successful unless the joint is re-injured. Check with your dentist if you have experienced popping, clicking, or pain in the TMJ.