TMJ Syndrome

Overview

It is estimated that 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ syndrome, a condition in which the temporomandibular joint does not function properly. This is the joint that connects the temporal bone (the bone that forms the sides of the scull) with the mandible (the jaw bone). We use this joint more frequently than most of the other joints in our bodies. Every time we talk, chew, bite down or swallow we put the TMJ to work. The most common causes of TMJ are a poor bite and stress, combined with grinding of the teeth, especially at night. Gum chewing can make this problem even worse.

Injury to the joint, known as TMJ dysfunction, is caused by two events: overuse of the joint, and favoring one side of the mouth when chewing and biting down. Overuse usually applies to clenchers and grinders–people who tend to clench their jaws tightly together for a variety reasons, primarily stress. Some people grind their teeth while sleeping and are totally unaware they are doing this. Gum chewers, who constantly work the joint, tend to be susceptible to TMJ dysfunction. By chewing on only one side of the mouth, undue stress is put on that side’s temporomandibular joint. This does not allow for even distribution of force applied to the joint, and pain will eventually develop. The same happens to people who have “improper bites,” meaning their teeth do not fit together correctly, causing one side of the mouth to close first when biting down and chewing.

Symptoms

This condition produces pain in the muscles and joints of the jaw that can radiate to the face, neck, head and even the shoulders. There also may be difficulty opening the mouth all the way, or clicking and popping noises when chewing, yawning, kissing or moving the joint.

Locate the temporomandibular joint by placing your finger on that triangle of skin in the front of your ear and then moving it a tiny bit forward. You should be able to feel a small depression between bones there. Now open and close your mouth a few times to feel the motion of the joint. If this hurts, you most likely have TMJ dysfunction. If the pain is bad, consult your dentist.

Treatment

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the pain and possibly take care of it altogether without seeing a doctor. The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery recommends trying some simple remedies. To reduce the amount of wear and injury to the joint, chew evenly (left vs. right), stop chewing gum, avoid hard chewy foods, and stop clenching, or grinding your teeth. To aid the healing process, apply a heating pad (or some form of heat) for 20 minutes at least twice a day. Two aspirin or ibuprofen tablets reduces inflammation. Don’t use them everyday; if the pain is that bad, see your dentist. If pain persists after a few weeks, or if it is already unbearable, see your dentist who can check the alignment of your teeth. Most cases of TMJ dysfunction can be taken care of by either readjusting a patient’s bite or by fitting him with a mouth-piece. A special mouth-piece is made to be worn at night to prevent clenching and compression of the joint. This also may correct the bite. Your dentist should be qualified to do both of these procedures.

Orthodontists, physical therapists and dentists all offer treatments for TMJ. However, it is estimated that 90% of all TMJ cases respond to simple, inexpensive treatments. So, before you invest in expensive dental or medical treatments, try simpler measures first, like giving up chewing gum for a few weeks or more to see if that helps. If it does help, you may have to stop chewing gum all together. Also, avoid sleeping on the side of your face where your jaw is more sore. If both joints are affected, sleep on your back.

More severe cases of TMJ dysfunction are referred to an oral surgeon who can coordinate a treatment plan that may or may not include surgery.

About this Author

Lara Alspaugh is a freelance health writer out of Michigan. She is a Registered Nurse and a former professional figure skater and coach. Her passion for health, fitness and family wellness has fueled her work. Her writing can be found in print and on the Internet.