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Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction Demystified

Submitted by: Ingo Zirpins, MSPT

Jaw pains are quite common amongst people in the United States. This is not surprising, since an average, well-fed person bites down during chewing more than 2000 times per day. That’s a lot of work on a pair of small joints.


The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are located on each side of the head, right in front of the ears. The left and right joints work together, using a complex system of muscles, ligaments, discs, bones, and nervous system to allow for various mouth movements such as chewing, speaking and yawning.


The term Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMD) refers to a variety of conditions that affect the jaw joints, jaw muscles, or the facial nerves. It’s been said that more than 10 million people in the United States suffer from variations of this common condition, which is considered the most common cause for chronic facial pain that is non-dental related. TMD affects more women than men and is most often diagnosed in individuals aged 20 to 40 years.


TMD can cause pain in or around the ear or TMJ, and may involve the face, eye, forehead, or neck. Other common symptoms include headaches, as well as clicking, popping, locking or dislocation of the TMJs when opening the mouth. Symptoms can also include pain with chewing, speaking or yawning, cause limitations in opening and closing of the mouth, and, on occasion, sensitivity in the teeth without other dental problems.


While the direct causes for the onset of TMD are not fully understood, it is suggested that the joints may become irritated by twisting motions at the jaw when opening or closing the mouth, or from traumatic or non-traumatic side-to-side motions of the jaw. There are multiple factors that might be considered risk factors for TMD, such as poor posture causing neck and jaw strain, chronic inflammatory arthritis, misalignment or trauma to the teeth, and stress or anxiety causing muscle tension and teeth grinding. On occasion, orthodontic dentures can contribute to TMD as well.


Many symptoms of Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction respond well to common home remedies used to manage inflammatory responses, such as icing of the painful region, gentle self-massage of the jaw and neck musculature, avoidance of heavy chewing, and stress reduction via relaxation techniques.


When home remedies are not effective, medical treatment might be indicated. Your dentist or primary care practitioner might refer you to physical therapy, which helps easing pain and regain normal jaw movement, while providing guidance to lessening daily stressors on the jaw. A jaw specialist might also suggest splinting to avoid excess teeth grinding at night. Acupuncture has proven itself helpful in the treatment of TMD as well.


In more severe cases of pain caused by actually damaged joints or soft tissue structures in the jaw, your primary care practitioner might opt for botox or corticosteroid injections into the TMJ to provide pain relief.  So far, there is not any scientific evidence that surgical interventions for TMJ disorders are effective.


Regardless, should you find yourself having to deal with chronic TMD-type symptoms, please be assured that proper care can help. As a prior mentor once said, the “TMJ is just another synovial [fluid-filled] joint.” If you can heal your ankle sprain, you will be able to heal your TMJ. I encourage you to consult with your primary care provider or your local physical therapist, who might help you to identify contributing factors that inhibit you from proper healing and, if needed, provide you with treatments to ease your pain.


Also, come visit our brief workshop If you would like to learn and understand more about the temporomandibular joint and receive some guidance for self-treatment. Move better, live better!

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