We have the ability to move our jaws because of the two temporomandibular joints that exist on each side of the head, just in front of the ears as the jaw connects to the skull. These joints allow us to maintain all of our basic mouth functions, including eating, talking, and yawning. However, there are injuries and disorders that exist that make it hard for these joints to function, causing pain and irritation when we try to perform these simple tasks.
The National Institute of Health – and more specifically the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research – reports that as many as 15 percent of Americans suffer from irritation, pain, and complications caused by TMJ disorders. Of that amount, the majority of people who experience these pains and symptoms of TMJ disorders are women.
TMJ can occur from a variety of causes, however the treatment of the pain and discomfort can be as simple as an ice pack and basic pain reliever medication. There are many self-treatments that can be utilized with most basic and common TMJ disorders, and medical treatment can be avoided with adequate response and attention to the injury. But in more severe cases, professional medical treatment will be required in the form of oral surgery or dental procedures.
The signs and symptoms of TMJ can be extensive, as the variations of pain can affect the entire face, head and neck. Depending on the severity of the TMJ disorder, the degree of pain and lack of comfort will vary accordingly. The most common symptoms of TMJ disorders include:
- Pain while biting or chewing
- Constant headaches
- Pain and/or tenderness in the jaw
- Painful sensations throughout the entire face
- Ear aches or pain around the ears
- Difficulty opening or closing the mouth
- A lopsided bite or the inability to close one side of the mouth
When a TMJ disorder has occurred, it is also somewhat common for a clicking noise to be present when the jaw opens or closes. This clicking sound can be noticed during eating or speaking, and does not always necessarily accompany a lack of motion in the jaw. A person can experience a full range of motion in his or her jaw, all the while experiencing both a clicking noise and pain. At many times with a TMJ disorder, there can also be a painful grinding sensation. However, it is very rare for a clicking sound or grinding sensation to occur without pain. In cases where pain is absent, it is unlikely that a person is experiencing a TMJ disorder.
If you have persistent pain or tenderness in your TMJ, if you have facial pain and experience clicking or grating when you chew or move your jaw, or if you can't open or close your jaw completely, seek medical attention. Your doctor, dentist or a TMJ specialist can discuss possible causes and treatments of TMJ disorders with you.
Because it combines a hinge action with sliding motions, the temporomandibular joint is one of the most complex joints in your body. The lower jaw has rounded ends that glide in and out of the joint socket when you talk, chew or yawn. The parts of the bones that interact in the joint are covered with cartilage and are separated by a small shock-absorbing disk, which keeps the movement smooth.
TMJ disorders can occur if:
- The disk erodes or moves out of its proper alignment.
- The joint's cartilage is damaged by arthritis.
- The joint is damaged by a blow or other impact.
- The muscles that stabilize the joint become fatigued from overwork, which can happen if you habitually clench or grind your teeth.
In many cases, however, the cause of TMJ symptoms isn't clear. However, TMJ disorders can occur in even the most mild and inconsequential accidents, including motor vehicle collisions and workplace mishaps.
In some cases, the symptoms of TMJ disorders may go away without treatment. If your symptoms persist, your doctor may recommend medications or a bite guard to help keep you from grinding your teeth at night. In very rare cases, surgery may be required to repair or replace the joint.
The following are some of the various common medical treatments available for TMJ disorders:
- Medications including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, tricyclic antidepressants, muscle relaxants, corticosteroid drugs, and botulism toxin
- Therapies including the regular nighttime use of a bite guard or cognitive behavioral therapy
- Corrective dental treatment
- Arthrocentesis (a process that involves the injection of fluids into the jaw’s joints to flush out any irritating or interfering debris)
- Oral and maxillofacial surgery
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