Understanding temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome

Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders are a common cause of jaw pain.

Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders are a common cause of jaw pain.

Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders, more commonly known as TMJ, are a group of collective medical conditions that are common among people of all ages in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, some estimates put the number of Americans affected by TMJ at more than 10 million.   

If you're experiencing jaw or face pain that you think could be traced to TMJ, read on to learn more about this condition. 

"TMJ disorders can cause pain in the temporomandibular joint and the muscles that move the jaw."

Understanding TMJ
The hinge that allows you to open and close your jaw is called the temporomandibular joint. There are two joints, one on either side of the face, each of which acts like a sliding hinge and connects the jaw to the skull. TMJ disorders can cause pain in this joint, as well as in the muscles that move the jaw. The group of problems that can accompany TMJ can make normal movement of the jaw difficult, causing even simple tasks like eating or speaking to be painful.   

Mayo Clinic reported that common symptoms of TMJ include:

  • Difficulty chewing.
  • Pain while chewing.
  • Facial soreness.
  • Tenderness or pain in the jaw.
  • Pain in at least one of the temporomandibular joints.
  • Aching around or in the ear. 
  • Difficulty opening or closing the mouth, due to locking of the joint. 

TMJ can also have a negative impact on your sleep habits. According to Mark Duncan, D.D.S., some sleeping disorders are directly related to problems with the temporomandibular joint. Some people may even experience night headaches.

"When the bite and the lower jaw are misaligned, muscles are strained which can result in head pain that can mimic a migraine," Duncan wrote in an article for The Huffington post. "This pain can be around the forehead, on the back of the head or radiating down the neck." 

TMJ is a difficult condition to diagnose. The NIDCR reported that trauma to the temporomandibular joint or jaw can contribute to the condition, but it is often hard to identify the exact cause of the pain. While there are some popular theories that orthodontic braces or a bad bite can contribute to the development of TMJ, there is no scientific evidence to back up these exclamations, according to the NIDCR.  

However, Mayo Clinic reported that arthritis or genetics can contribute to the development of TMJ. 

TMJ can disrupt your sleep, leaving you frustrated and tired.TMJ can disrupt your sleep, leaving you frustrated and tired.

Alleviating the pain of TMJ
TMJ can be a painful and frustrating condition. Generally, however, it is temporary – and occasional – and will go away with little or no treatment. However, that doesn't make it any easier to deal with while it's happening. Although interventions such as surgery are rarely required, there are ways to manage and even reduce the pain that require little work on your part. 

"Because more studies are needed on the safety and effectiveness of most treatments for jaw joint and muscle disorders, experts strongly recommend using the most conservative, reversible treatments possible," wrote the NIDCR. "Conservative treatments do not invade the tissues of the face, jaw, or joint, or involve surgery. Reversible treatments do not cause permanent changes in the structure or position of the jaw or teeth. Even when TMJ disorders have become persistent, most patients still do not need aggressive types of treatment."   

According to Mayo Clinic, TMJ is often treated with medications, such as pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, tricyclic antidepressants and muscle relaxants. The American Dental Association additionally recommended the following:   

  • Engaging in relaxation techniques to decrease muscle tension in the jaw.
  • Avoiding harder foods.
  • Applying heat packs to painful areas.
  • Stopping fingernail biting or gum chewing. 

The ADA also reported that it may be necessary to strengthen your jaw with muscle exercises or wear a night guard to prevent grinding or clenching of teeth while sleeping. A physician or dentist can help you to determine if either of these more aggressive steps are necessary to help heal your TMJ.  

If you are living with the pain caused by TMJ, try the Polar Ice® TMJ Wrap, an aid designed to deliver the benefits of cryotherapy through ice and compression. The wrap reduces pain and swelling with ice packs encapsulated in soft, fleece material to treat sprains, bruises or other injuries. The TMJ Wrap can be used during rehabilitation, after surgery or following the completion of physical activity.  

If you believe that you have TMJ, you should schedule an appointment with your physician to confirm the condition and seek advice regarding treatment options.