Joints are what give our bodies a free range of motion. A complete skeleton has 360 joints that hold two or more bones together. Even pain in a minor joint can have a big impact on your ease of movement. When pain affects joints that are constantly in motion, your quality of life is quickly jeopardised. There are few joints we use more than those in our jaw, known as our temporomandibular joints (TMJ).
What Are Temporomandibular Joints?
These joints are hinges that connect your lower jaw to your upper jaw and the temporal bones of your skull, right in front of each ear. TMJs act like sliding hinges, allowing you to move your jaw up and down and side to side. The parts of the bones that interact with the joint are sheathed in cartilage and separated by a shock-absorbing disk. This disk keeps the movement smooth.
These joints are activated with each movement of your jaw, no matter how small. When you talk, eat, yawn or grit your teeth, these joints are in motion. When this complex joint develops issues, it can cause a range of symptoms and varying levels of pain.
What Is TMJD?
Often, you’ll hear TMJ disorders referred to as just "TMJ", in reference to the joint. Because we’re talking about the actual disorder that affects the joint, we refer to it as TMJD. If you’re experiencing pain in your jaw and the muscles that control it, you may have TMJ disorder.
The reason for someone’s TMJD is sometimes hard to determine and can be caused by a combination of factors like genetics, arthritis or injury. If you habitually grind or clench your teeth, this could also be a factor though most people who do this never develop TMJD. The actual reason for the pain can sometimes be more straightforward. Painful TMJD can occur when:
- The small disk erodes or becomes misaligned
- The joint’s cartilage is compromised by arthritis
- The joint is damaged by injury or impact
Other times, the cause of TMJD isn’t very clear.
Signs and Symptoms
If you’re experiencing some or all of these symptoms, it’s time to visit your dentist to get to the root cause of your discomfort:
- Pain and/or tenderness in your jaw
- Pain in one or both of your TMJs
- Aching and chronic pain around your ear
- Aching facial pain
- Difficulty and/or pain while chewing and talking
- Locking of your joints and difficulty opening or closing your mouth
- Clicking or grating sound or sensation when you chew or open your mouth
You may not be suffering from TMJD, but the sooner you get checked out, the more comfortable you’ll be. Luckily, the discomfort caused by TMJD is often temporary and the symptoms relieved with self-managed care or non-surgical professional treatments.
TMJD can’t always be prevented but dentists agree there are lifestyle changes that may lower your risk of developing a disorder. Effective preventative tactics can include:
- Managing long-term stress levels through meditation, breathwork or other methods
- Maintaining good posture
- Minimising jaw exertion by not biting nails, chewing gum, or engaging in other habitual chewing
- Monitoring existing dental work for an uneven bite
- Ask your dentist about managing teeth grinding and jaw clenching
How Can Jaw Pain Be Managed?
If you’re experiencing active pain, it’s important to make an appointment with your dentist to understand and identify what the cause of the discomfort is. It’s never a good idea to self-diagnose because there may be a different cause entirely. Only your dentist has the tools and knowledge to correctly diagnose TMJD. Once diagnosed, there are several treatments to consider. Most dentists will recommend the least invasive options possible to achieve relief. Options may include:
- Cold compresses
- Over the counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories
- Muscle relaxants
- Physical therapy
- Dental treatments or orthodontics to even your bite
- Custom dental splints or mouthguards
On the rare occasions these methods don’t improve your symptoms, your dentist may suggest other procedures like:
- Minimally invasive procedures to irrigate the joint
- Injections of steroids or neuromodulators
- Arthroscopic surgery
- Surgery to address jaw locking
- Surgery to address structural joint problems
Seek Professional Advice and Treatment
There’s nothing worse than being in chronic pain, but you don’t have to suffer silently. Make an appointment to see one of our specialists to determine the cause of your joint pain and explore options to relieve your symptoms. We have solutions for your whole family and look forward to addressing all of your concerns. We’ve built our patient-centric practise around your comfort and safety and our ability to deliver real results.