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What You Can Do About TMJ

If you’ve ever suffered from nagging headaches, neck stiffness, sensitive teeth or a sore jaw, you know how frustrating sudden and inexplicable orofacial pain and discomfort can be. The source can be elusive, which can leave you frustrated — and even wondering if it’s not all in your head.

A group of conditions known as temporomandibular joint and muscular disorders (more commonly known as TMJ) are a common culprit. They involve the joint connecting the lower jaw to the skull, as well as surrounding muscles, and they plague 10 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of those cases, 15 percent are chronic.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research ,TMJ disorders fall into three main categories:

  1. Myofacial pain, which is the most common TMJ disorder, involves pain or discomfort in muscles that control jaw function
  2. Internal derangement of the joint involves a displaced disc, dislocated jaw or injury to the condyle.
  3. Arthritis refers to a group of degenerative/inflammatory joint disorders that can affect the temporomandibular joint.

For some, multiple conditions may occur at once or coexist with other health problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis.

Symptoms

A variety of pain and discomfort associated with the head, neck, face and mouth can be linked to TMJ disorders.

Common symptoms include:

  • Clicking and popping of the jaw
  • Limited ability to open the mouth
  • Headaches
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Dull pain around the ears and face
  • Tinitis (ringing ears)
  • Uneven bite
  • Jaw pain or tenderness

Causes

What causes a TMJ disorder is oftentimes unclear. And while anyone can suffer from them, they statistically impact more women than men and usually occur in people between the ages of 20 and 40.

Common contributing factors include:

  • Improper tooth alignment
  • Clenching and grinding teeth while awake or asleep
  • Head or neck trauma

Poor posture, unmanaged stress, dietary habits such as eating hard foods and chewing gum, and coexisting conditions may worsen symptoms.

TMJ disorders may not be entirely preventable, but risk and severity can be diminished by practicing stress-reduction and relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and exercise, which can help reduce teeth grinding and jaw clenching; using proper body mechanics while working at a computer; avoiding hard foods and chewing gum; and taking safety precautions to avoid trauma and injury or lessen their impact.

Treatment

Talking to a doctor or dentist can help determine if a TMJ disorder is to blame for orofacial pain and how to treat it. TMJ disorders vary in severity. Some people experience an acute case, while others endure long-term dysfunction.

In some individuals, problems dissipate with simple self-care techniques such as:

  • Applying moist heat or ice
  • Eating soft foods
  • Wearing a mouth guard while sleeping
  • Using relaxation techniques
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Massaging the muscles in your neck, head, face and shoulders

Other people require medical attention ranging from prescription medication to cognitive behavioral therapy to surgery—a controversial, last-resort option.

Diagnosis

Keeping track of symptoms and writing them down can help you determine what might be causing them. If they persist and interfere with your daily life, you may want to schedule and appointment with your dentist.

As with any medical appointment, being able to recall when and how frequently problems occur, as well as the activities and incidents surrounding them, can make your visit more productive. Thoroughly answering your health care provider’s questions can help them determine the cause and create an effective treatment plan.

Dentists typically diagnose TMJ disorders through examination and X-rays; however, they may also take a cast of the teeth or order additional radiology tests such as an MRI or CT scan. In some cases, patients are referred to an oral surgeon or other specialist.

Resources

Having a dental insurance plan can help make diagnosis and treatment less expensive. Click here to learn the difference between a discount plan and an insurance plan.

Click here to learn how to combat bad oral health habits, some of which can make TMJ worse.

Looking for more information on TMJ disorders? Visit these websites:

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

Mayo Clinic

American Dental Association

Web MD

U.S National Library of Medicine



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