A wide variety of people suffer from seemingly unconnected problems as varied as headaches, neck pain, difficulty chewing, and even hearing problems. Although these problems and others, such as tooth grinding and sinus problems, may seem unrelated, there is actually an underlying problem that can cause many of these issues.
Temporomandibular joint, or TMJ, disorders cover a whole family of problems that are related to the complex joint of your jaw. Symptoms like pain in the region or a clicking noise when your jaw moves can all be caused by TMJ disorders. Fortunately, these problems are now much easier to diagnose and treat than they have been in the past. While no single treatment can cure a TMJ disorder completely, finding the root cause of your problems can allow Dr. Juan C. Arroyo, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Miami, to help you reduce or eliminate the symptoms and develop a healthier, pain-free jaw.
What is TMJ Disorder?
The temporomandibular joints are the two joints that connect your jaw to your skull, allowing speech, chewing, and other motions. A TMJ disorder occurs when the chewing muscles and the joints of the jaw are not working together correctly, which places stress on the joints, muscles, and bones that are connected to these joints. While some of the symptoms, like that clicking noise, seem to be mere nuisances, many types of TMJ issues can develop into more serious conditions, making early diagnosis and treatment important.
TMJ Disorder Symptoms
The symptoms of a TMJ disorder can vary widely depending on the exact nature the disorder. Slight variations in the way that the joints and muscles fit together can produce stresses in different areas of the jaw, face, neck, and ears. These can be caused by incorrect healing after a neck, head, or jaw injury, or the problem can simply develop over time. In addition to injuries in the area, problems like arthritis that affect other joints can also be an indication that you might have a TMJ disorder.
Some of the most common symptoms include sore and stiff muscles around the jaw, unconscious grinding or clenching of the teeth, frequent headaches or neck aches that become worse when the teeth are clenched, and stress-related clenching and head or neck pain. In other cases, the joints themselves are the obvious problem and are painful when yawning or opening the mouth, or they might produce noises and sensations like clicking, popping, grating, or locking when opening and closing the mouth. TMJ disorders can also manifest as chewing issues like teeth that don’t touch when you bite down, teeth that meet differently at different times, front teeth that can’t grip or tear food, and teeth that are sensitive, loose or worn down.
Since the symptoms are so varied, it can be difficult to tell if they are truly caused by a TMJ disorder. During your consultation in our Miami office, Dr. Arroyo can diagnose the issue to tell you if a TMJ disorder is behind your discomfort.
What Is the Cause of Jaw Locking?
There are a number of reasons that a TMJ disorder might develop. Some patients have a history of clenching or grinding the teeth, which can lead to a tightening of jaw muscles that stresses the joint. Other patients have experienced a change in the joint’s function due to injury or degenerative disease that have either damaged the joint directly or stretched and torn the ligaments in the area. This can cause the cartilage disc that cushions the joint to slip out of position, leading to misalignment, jaw or neck pain, clicking and grating noises, and that locking sensation as the edges of the joint catch.
Treatment for TMJ disorders are normally nonsurgical, but they can vary depending on the nature of the disorder. Once Dr. Arroyo has had an opportunity to examine your jaw and evaluate the situation, he’ll be able to determine a proper course of treatment that will help to improve the function and comfort of your jaw. These treatments will nearly always involve a team approach that depends on adequate self-care as well as professional care to achieve the best results.
For most patients, the first goal is to relieve joint paint and muscle spasming. This is generally accomplished with muscle relaxants, pain relievers, or anti-inflammatory drugs like injectable steroids that reduce inflammation and pain in the area. In addition to immediately easing your discomfort, these treatments can also reduce stress and tightness in the area, making it easier to achieve a longer-term solution.
In addition to medical treatments for your discomfort, Dr. Arroyo will typically recommend a self-care regimen that includes specific jaw and posture exercises, application of heat or ice, incorporation of softer foods into the diet to ease stress in the area, and resting methods like keeping the teeth apart when not swallowing or eating. Stress management techniques physical therapy or biofeedback are often recommended as well to reduce strain.
In some cases, Dr. Arroyo may prescribe various appliances to help your TMJ disorder. A clear plastic device called a splint or nightguard can fit over your bottom or top teeth to keep them apart and prevent grinding, which will relax the muscles and reduce pain in addition to preventing damage from grinding. There are also anterior positioning appliances to move the jaw forward and relieve pressure and orthotic stabilization appliances that help to move your jaw into the correct position. These may be worn 24 hours a day or just at night, depending on the situation.
TMJ Disorder FAQs
Can my TMJ disorder be cured?
TMJ disorders can normally be improved dramatically with simple treatments, but in most cases it is inappropriate to think of it as a cure since the patient must continue to rest the jaw when needed and avoid excessive stress in the area.
Should I consider surgery or bite correction?
In most cases, Dr. Arroyo prefers to avoid TMJ surgery except for extreme situations where the jaw does not open, has severe degeneration, or has become dislocated. Occasionally, however, surgical treatment may be advisable if appliance treatment is completely unsuccessful. Since these cases are unusual, it’s important to see Dr. Arroyo to get a professional evaluation and see if there are less extreme measures that could be tried.
Can TMJ disorder go away on its own?
In some cases, the symptoms of a TMJ disorder will fade over time without any intervention. However, since it is possible for the disorder to instead worsen and cause further problems, it is generally wisest to seek treatment to quickly remove discomfort and prevent any deterioration.
Do TMJ disorders cause earaches?
Since the temporomandibular joint is so close to the middle ear and ear canal, it’s not uncommon for issues with the TMJ to put stress on the delicate nerves, bones, and cartilage around the ear. In most cases this does not affect hearing, but some pain or stuffiness can be a symptom of a TMJ disorder, particularly if the discomfort becomes worse when chewing or yawning.
How long does TMJ disorder treatment take?
Most patients see immediate improvement in their comfort level with the prescribed medications, and greater improvement in function within two weeks of recommended exercises, rest, and appliances.