Ouch! It’s a common word and nearly universally understood as an indication that someone has just experienced an unexpected pain. But sometimes this common word leaves your own mouth, just because you opened it. Like so many other unexpected twinges and tingles and tiny surprise pains, a brief jab of discomfort when you open your mouth to speak is more than likely not something to worry about. Or is it?
What is TMJ?
With the advent of texting, many of us are now familiar with the use of letters to represent words: LOL (laughing out loud), OMG (oh, my goodness), and DYK (do you know) are a few of the often seen combinations. The combination TMJ serves the same purpose for a condition that the American Dental Association says affects about 15% of Americans.
TMJ is the common – and more easily said – name for the temporomandibular joint. You may not have heard of this joint until now, but the temporomandibular joint is what lets you speak, eat, yawn, whistle – in short, it’s the key to using your mouth.
The TMJ works like the hinges on a door: as a sliding connector from your jawbone to your skull. You have one on each side of your head, and they include muscles and ligaments that work with your upper and lower jawbone. Each TMJ consists of a ball and socket, and each has a disc between these two parts. The disc is what lets your jaw open wide, rotate, or glide, and cushions the load on the joint so all the action of your jaw is painless. Until it isn’t.
What is TMJ pain and what causes it?
TMJ disorders can produce a range of symptoms. You may experience pain or tenderness in your jaw or where the TMJ joins your skull. This may happen at any time, but is often experienced during biting, chewing, or yawning. Headaches and migraines, facial discomfort, and ear pain can sometimes be caused by TMJ problems, as well as pain in your neck, shoulders, or back. And, of course, there’s that annoying clicking or popping when you open your mouth. In some cases, your jaw may even lock up, making it difficult to open or close your mouth.
Like the symptoms of TMJ disorders, these problems can also have several causes. Injury to the jaw is an obvious potential source for TMJ pain, but more common causes are arthritis, your tooth-jaw alignment, and teeth grinding. Even an unexplained loose tooth may be caused by a TMJ problem. Fortunately, though, while TMJ pain can be annoying, it’s usually occasional and temporary; and even if symptoms persist, you’re unlikely to need any kind of aggressive treatment. Most of the time, slight TMJ discomfort will go away on its own, without dental or medical intervention. Learn more about TMJ treatments at Lifetime Dental Health here.
What can I do if I have a TMJ disorder?
What to do about TMJ problems depends on their cause. Currently, there is little scientific data that shows any one particular treatment for TMJ disorders works best, but the place to start is with a firm diagnosis. To check for possible TMJ problems, we will examine your jaw joint and jaw muscles for tenderness, clicking, difficulty in moving, or loss of the normal range of motion of your jaw. Depending on our findings we may refer you to a medical professional. Most often, however, we find that you can alleviate your jaw pain at home using some simple “less is often best” remedies based on recommendations from the National Institute of Dental and Cranial Research:
Eating softer foods
Avoiding gum chewing and nail-biting
Using heat/ice packs on the painful areas
Taking non-aspirin NSAIDs
Resting your jaw and controlling jaw tension
Not surprisingly, teeth grinding is a significant cause of TMJ disorders. And you can be grinding your teeth even if you don’t realize you’re doing it. People often grind their teeth at night while they’re sleeping – usually because of stress – and this is difficult to cure with lifestyle changes. If we find that grinding your teeth is causing your TMJ, you may need to wear a mouth guard to help relax your muscles, so you reduce grinding and protect your teeth from unnecessary wear. We would create an impression of your teeth and custom create your mouth guard. Such guards are long-lasting, giving you 3 to 10 years of comfortable sleep and healthier teeth.
Severe cases of TMJ can sometimes require more extensive treatments, such as fixing an uneven bite by adjusting or reshaping some teeth. Orthodontic treatment may be appropriate in certain cases. The ways to control TMJ are as varied as its causes.
At Lifetime Health Dental, we’re committed to caring for your oral health throughout your lifetime, serving your dental needs from childhood to old age, from check-ups to braces, and beyond. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of TMJ, we encourage you to contact our office for an appointment specifically to explore what may be causing your symptoms and how we can help you remedy them.