Anyone who’s suffered from TMJ pain knows how debilitating it can be. While it may start with a little soreness at the temples or popping when you yawn, it can quickly progress into daily migraines, difficulty eating, and permanent damage to the teeth. If you suspect you may have TMJ disorder, here are 8 symptoms that shouldn’t be ignored.
What Is TMJ Disorder?
Although people often refer to TMJ disorder as TMJ, this abbreviation is for the joint that causes the pain—the temporomandibular joint. When this joint is causing pain or not functioning properly, the condition is known as TMJ disorder, also known as TMD or TMJD.
It’s believed that around 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ pain. Although the joint in question is quite small, it can cause a tremendous amount of pain. The TMJ acts as a sliding hinge that connects the jaw to the skull. Think about how many times a day you eat, open your mouth, speak, yawn—when your TMJ is dysfunctional, each of those movements can cause the joint to become aggravated and painful.
Common Symptoms of TMJ Disorder
There are some symptoms of TMJ disorder that are unmistakable. Clicking and popping in the jaw, for example, are very rarely anything other than TMJ disorder. Other signs of the disorder are easy to confuse with different health issues. Headaches can be misdiagnosed as migraines; earaches are usually thought to originate in the ear canal, not a joint located near it. To diagnose TMJ disorder, we take a step back and look at all of your symptoms to piece together the puzzle. Here are signs that you could have TMD:
Headaches from TMJ disorder may come and go or they may be chronic as the disorder progresses and worsens over time. These headaches usually feel as if they’re originating behind the eyes and because of this, they’re often misdiagnosed as migraines.
The temporomandibular joint is located just above the ear, so when it becomes inflamed, it can cause earaches. If you suffer from frequent earaches without any other symptoms, it’s possible that the cause could be TMJ disorder and not an infection in your ears. When the TMJ is acting up, you may also have a feeling of fullness in the ears and even dizziness since the body’s sense of balance comes from the inner ear.
Clicking and Popping Sounds
When you yawn, do you hear or feel your jaw pop? If you’re eating chewy food like crusty bread or caramel candy, does your jaw make clicking sounds? Do you feel like you need to “adjust” your jaw sometimes by popping it? These are all signs that you could have TMJ disorder. Like any other joint in the body, the temporomandibular joint should not make sounds when it’s in use. Noises from this joint are a clear sign that something is wrong.
If your jaw gets locked in the open or closed position, this too is another sign that the temporomandibular joint is not functioning properly. It’s important to get prompt treatment if you experience this symptom often.
TMJ-related jaw pain can be felt at the temples and it may extend all the way down to the sides of the upper jaw and beyond. Sometimes instead of pain, patients experience a feeling of discomfort, often described as feeling as if their jaw is out of alignment.
When the temporomandibular joint is particularly inflamed, it can even cause pain elsewhere in the face—the cheeks, under the eyes, even the forehead. TMJ pain can be like a vicious circle: muscle tension can cause TMJ pain, then TMJ pain can also cause even more muscle tension, which is felt elsewhere in the face.
Shoulder and Neck Pain
It’s not uncommon for patients with TMJ disorder to experience pain in the neck and shoulders too. Like facial pain, this is also related to the muscle tension that leads to and is caused by TMJ disorder. Poor posture can cause TMJ pain, but poor posture can also be a reaction to TMJ pain.
Changes to Teeth
Teeth grinding and jaw clenching are both causes of TMJ pain. If you notice that your teeth look worn down or have chips or cracks you don’t remember getting from an injury, it could be a sign that you also have TMJ disorder. Patients may also feel that their upper and lower teeth no longer fit together properly—this can indicate that the temporomandibular joint dysfunction is so severe that the jaw is no longer aligned as it should be.
Causes to TMJ Disorder
In order to effectively treat TMJ disorder, it’s important for us to determine the underlying cause whenever possible. While treating the symptoms can bring temporary relief, it’s only by treating the cause of TMJ disorder that we can come up with a lasting solution. Reasons for TMJ pain include:
- Facial trauma or other injury to the temporomandibular joint
- Congenital birth defects or other structural problems with the jaw
- Teeth grinding and jaw clenching (often as a reaction to stress)
- Erosion of the joint
- Orthodontic treatment
- Poor posture
At your first appointment for TMJ pain, we’ll discuss the symptoms you’re experiencing and conduct a thorough exam that includes feeling the temporomandibular joint while you open and close your mouth, checking for tenderness and swelling surrounding the joint, and examining the teeth for signs of wear due to teeth grinding. If we suspect that there is physical damage to the joint itself, you may also need x-rays or even a CT scan or MRI.
Stress is an important factor in TMJ pain. You might not even realize it, but stress and anxiety can cause dramatic physiological changes in the body. Your jaw may be clenched as you sit at the computer working, or you might be one of the many people who grinds their teeth at night and has no knowledge of it. Stress can cause muscle tension throughout the body, including the muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joint. While it’s not a direct cause of TMJ pain, it’s certainly a complicating factor and it causes many physical conditions that lead to TMJ dysfunction.
Sometimes, an underlying cause for TMJ disorder cannot be diagnosed; this doesn’t mean that treatment isn’t possible, but it may take a little more trial-and-error. This is why it’s important to find a TMJ treatment provider that takes the time to listen to your symptoms and come up with a personalized treatment plan just for you.
TMJ Disorder Treatment in NYC
There are several possible treatment options for TMJ pain. The simplest step to start with is self-care at home, particularly if your TMJ pain is not chronic. Treat your jaw pain with hot or cold therapy—or a combination of both—using compresses. Cold therapy using an ice pack works best, but some patients with muscle tension find relief from warm compresses. When your TMJ feels aggravated, switch to a soft foods diet and avoid gum and foods that require a lot of chewing. There are even exercises you can do to relax your jaw if muscle tension due to jaw clenching is causing your TMJ pain.
For patients who have arthritis, it may be necessary to loop in a rheumatologist so we can treat the pain you’re experiencing and also the underlying cause of it. Some patients with arthritis, erosion of the joint, or a traumatic injury need to have the temporomandibular joint replaced in order to get permanent relief.
The most common treatment for TMJ pain are splints that help reposition the jaw while you sleep. Sometimes known as night guards, these splints are very effective, particularly for patients who clench their jaws and grind their teeth at night. Another non-invasive treatment for TMJ disorder is physical therapy. Often, we recommend both of these treatment options, along with self-managed care at home.
Because one of the underlying factors at play with TMJ pain is stress, it’s important to manage your anxiety levels as well. Consider yoga, meditation, and incorporating more relaxing self-care activities into your day.
Ultimately, because TMJ disorder has so many potential causes, there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to TMJ pain. When you get TMJ disorder treatment from Smiles on the Upper Westside, you’ll always get a personalized approach based on your unique situation and needs. We work closely with other medical professionals and therapists when needed, taking a holistic approach that yields better results than those of practitioners who use the same treatment protocol for every patient they see with TMJ pain.
Schedule an Appointment at Smiles on the Upper Westside
Do you have TMJ pain? Are you experiencing any of the symptoms above and think it could be TMJ disorder? Let’s work together to figure out the underlying cause of your TMJ pain and develop a personalized treatment plan that has you back to feeling like your old self again. Contact us today at 212-222-5225 to schedule an appointment for a consultation with Upper West Side Dentist, Dr. Massiah.