Your temporomandibular joints (TMJs) connect your lower jaw to your skull. These joints are positioned in front of your ears on both sides of your head.

Your TMJs act like hinges, allowing your lower jaw to move sideways and up and down. If these joints are damaged by a TMJ disorder, TMJ pain can result and interfere with normal mouth function when you speak or chew.

Having a TMJ disorder is relatively common. The condition affects about 12% of Americans at any given time. These conditions and the pain they cause can occur as the result of many factors, including arthritis, trauma, a structural misalignment, or habitual teeth clenching and grinding. In some cases, TMJ pain can occur without an obvious reason.

In this blog, orthodontist Emanuel Mizrahi, DDS, of Forest Hills Orthodontic Associates in Forest Hills, New York, discusses what can cause TMJ problems and why these conditions need a dental evaluation.

What causes TMJ disorders?

A TMJ disorder can occur as the result of trauma to the joint, your jaw, or your head and neck muscles. It can also be associated with arthritis in the joint, clenching or grinding your teeth, or stress, which may make you tighten your facial and jaw muscles or clench your teeth. And some people may be more susceptible to TMJ issues because of genetics.

TMJ pain can also be a symptom of the dislocation of the shock-absorbing disc in the joint. If the TMJ is damaged, the disc may dislocate when you close your mouth and reposition itself when you open your mouth, and thus cause a pop or crack.

Symptoms of TMJ disorders

If you have a problem with either of your temporomandibular joints or both of them, you may experience a number of symptoms. Jaw pain or soreness is one of the most common symptoms of a TMJ disorder. TMJ pain occurs when the muscles that control jaw movement become inflamed and strained by a TMJ disorder.

TMJ pain often feels like a dull, aching pain that comes and goes, though it can also occur as excruciating and intense pain in your face, jaw, head, neck, and/or shoulders. Other general symptoms can include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Toothaches
  • Neck aches
  • Earaches
  • Dizziness
  • Hearing problems
  • Upper shoulder pain
  • Ringing in your ears.
  • Pain when you open or close your mouth fully

TMJ pain may also be accompanied by discomfort that affects your facial nerves with or without movement. This pain may extend along the side of your neck, temple, head, cheek, lower jaw, and teeth. The effect may cause a tired feeling in your face, similar to a toothache.

Ear pain associated with TMJ pain can create the sensation of a stuffy or clogged feeling in your ear and feel like an earache.

Why treating a TMJ disorder matters

Ignoring a TMJ disorder can allow your symptoms to worsen over time and decrease your quality of life. Without treatment, the condition could damage your ability to chew, swallow, speak, control facial muscles, and breathe.

The discomfort and dysfunction caused by a TMJ disorder could interfere with your daily life. TMJ pain usually indicates strain to the muscles or an inflammatory condition. If allowed to continue, the condition could limit your jaw’s ability to function and create changes in your bite.

Treatment options for TMJ disorders

A comprehensive dental evaluation can help determine the cause of your TMJ pain and the proper course of treatment. A dental X-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be used to evaluate your teeth, jaws, temporomandibular joints, and surrounding bones and soft tissues.

Treatment typically begins conservatively with one or more of the following options:

  • Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications
  • Prescription medications, such as muscle relaxers
  • Dental splint to relieve muscle strain and allow the inflammation to resolve
  • Icing or ultrasound therapies
  • Steroid injections
  • Mouthguards to stop teeth clenching or grinding

If conservative therapies aren’t successful, you may benefit from surgery. This can include arthrocentesis, a procedure that involves using small needles to irrigate the joint and remove debris that could be causing inflammation. Other procedures, which involve repairing or replacing the TMJ, might also be recommended.

To see if you have a TMJ disorder and to learn about your treatment options if you do, book an appointment over the phone with Forest Hills Orthodontic Associates today.