Occasional pain in your chewing muscles or jaw joint is common and usually not an area of concern. However, if you’re experiencing persistent or severe jaw pain, see a doctor as it could be a sign of a temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).
TMD affects around 35 million people in the U.S. (12 percent of the population) at any given time, according to The TMJ Association, Ltd. (TMJA). Although both women and men get this disorder, most individuals looking for treatment are women who are in their childbearing years.
The ratio of individuals experiencing severe symptoms, like chronic pain and jaw movement limitations, is nine women for every one man. While the reason for women experiencing the condition more often than men isn’t clear, the thought is that collagen holding the disk in position is structurally different in females than males.
The Difference Between TMJ and TMD Chances are you’ve probably heard somebody say they have TMJ. But, in fact, TMJ in itself isn’t a disorder, and it’s often confused with the actual disorder, which is TMD. So, let’s go over the differences between the two so that you are more clear.
TMJ is your jaw joint, known as the temporomandibular joint. You have two of these joints that sit in front of each of your ears. They connect your mandible (lower jawbone) to your skull’s temporal bones on both sides of your head. Your facial muscles that control these joints are connected to your mandible and help your jaw move side to side, up and down and back and forward.
When you open your mouth, your condyles (rounded ends of your lower jaw) glide along your temporal bone’s joint socket. When you close your mouth, your condyles glide back to their initial position. You have a soft disc that lies between your temporal bone and condyle to maintain a smooth motion. When you chew or perform another movement, this soft disc buffers the shocks your jaw joint is exposed to.
Your TMJ is not the same as the other joints in your body. It’s actually a complicated joint and combines sliding and hinging motions. And, your TMJ’s tissues are not the same as your other load-bearing joints, such as your hip or knee.
Its rare makeup and complicated movement make your jaw joint and the muscles that control it a challenge to treat if a problem does occur.
TMD is a poorly understood and complicated condition associated with limitations in your jaw and pain in your jaw joint and surrounding tissues. Other conditions, such as arthritis and injuries that often affect your body’s other joints, also affect your TM.
You may have just one of these joints involved or both. Depending on how severe your condition is it may affect your ability to chew, swallow, speak, breathe and make facial expressions.
Many patients, according to scientists, may have comorbid conditions, including the below, along with their TMD:
- Chronic headache
- Crowded tooth cases
- Bucked tooth cases
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Low back pain
- Sleep disorders
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Fibromyalgia interstitial cystitis
These other conditions are thought to be comorbid because they occur simultaneously with TMD.
Signs and Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
Symptoms of TMD you may experience include:
- Aching pain that radiates around and in your ear
- Tenderness or pain of your jaw
- Tight jaw
- Aching facial pain
- Crooked jaw
- Pain in one or both TMJs
- Pain while chewing or difficulty chewing
- Joint locking that makes it hard to open and close your mouth
When opening your mouth or chewing, your TMD may cause a grating sensation or clicking sound. However, if you don’t have any movement limitation or aren’t experiencing any pain with this jaw clicking, you may not require treatment.
If you suspect you have TMD symptoms, call your doctor or dentist. Your doctor can rule out other ailments that could be mimicking TMD. For instance, there are several conditions that cause facial pain like:
- Abscessed or decayed teeth
- Ear or sinus infections
- nerve-related facial pain (facial neuralgia)
- Lyme disease
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- and other diseases
that could also affect your TMJ function.
There is no specific dental or medical specialty of qualified professionals trained in TMD treatment and care, and therefore, no set standards of clinical practice care. While you will find healthcare professionals that call themselves TMJ specialists, all the available treatments today aren’t backed by scientific evidence and many healthcare professionals practice TMD care based on various schools of thought.
This can make it difficult for you to find the right care. But, educating yourself can help you communicate better with your doctors and get your questions answered so you can make informed decisions.
The best route of care, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is through healthcare professionals who work with pain and musculoskeletal disorders that affect your bones, muscles and joints. It may benefit you to seek advice from pain clinics in universities and hospitals, however, particularly if you’re dealing with chronic pain that’s interfering with your everyday life.
Doctors in the field of pain management, neurology, rheumatology and other diagnosis and treatment specialties and neuromuscular dentists are ideal for complicated cases where you’re suffering from severe or chronic pain, comorbid conditions, jaw dysfunction and poor quality of life.
Be sure to call your dentist or doctor if:
- You have limited jaw movement.
- You have missing teeth and jaw pain.
- Your experiencing swelling around your TMJ area.
- You’re taking OTC pain relievers for an injury to your jaw where the pain isn’t going away after a few days.
- Your jaw is making it hard to eat or keeping you up all night.
Your symptoms may go away with control of habits and the right type of care. Occasionally, symptoms may take less than a month to disappear. For more serious cases, like those that involve severe bruxism or arthritis, it could take longer. Your dentist can provide you with conservative TMD treatment, but if your healthcare professional recommends irreversible treatments, it’s best to get a second opinion.