What is TMJ and how do you treat it?

You’ve probably heard of someone complaining of TMJ pain, or have experienced it yourself. What is it? The TMJ is the joint where the upper and lower jaws meet. Temporomandibular disorders can represent a wide array of head pain problems such as: ringing in the ears, clicking or locking of the jaw, headaches, and pain on the sides or back of the head.

What causes TMJ pain? The New England Journal of Medicine writes: “the cause is considered multifactorial, with biologic, behavioral, environmental, social, emotional and cognitive factors, alone or in combination, contributing to the development of signs and symptoms of temporomandibular disorders.”

Whew, sounds like almost anything can cause TMJ pain. In my experience, the most common causes are clenching of teeth, grinding at night when asleep, or oral habits like frequent gum chewing. The majority of people with TMJ symptoms are women. Some studies put the number at 90% of cases reported are from female patients. The most common TMJ problem is known as myofacial pain disorder, a neuromuscular problem of the chewing muscles characterized by a dull, aching pain in around the ear that may radiate to the side or back of the head.

What are the options to treat TMJ? Resting the jaw is paramount. You want to give the joint and surrounding muscles time to recuperate. Your dentist can construct a custom mouth guard for you to wear at night to prevent you from clenching or grinding your teeth in your sleep. Heat applied at the side of the face also helps, as well as nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory medications for up to 2 weeks. In more painful cases, some patients are helped by a low dose antidepressant or antianxiety medication. If you’re under a lot of stress, stress management can do wonders to rid yourself of the myofacial pain. Sometimes, physical therapy to retrain the positioning of the head, jaw and tongue can also help. Certain jaw exercises can help diminish the discomfort. Obviously, you will want to cease any oral habits like gum chewing or biting your fingernails.

These treatments mentioned above will help alleviate probably 95% of all TMJ issues.   If further treatment is necessary (and this is very rare), I would recommend visiting a multidisciplinary temporomandibular clinic, found at many leading hospitals and dental schools.

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