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What Is TMJ?
Do you have unexplained ongoing jaw pain or headaches? It may be time to talk to your dentist about TMJ Disorder.
TMJ (short for Temporomandibular Joint) Disorder is a blanket term for problems with the jaw and muscles of the face. The TMJ joint connects the upper and lower parts of your jaw, and is an important part of your facial anatomy. Your jaw joint plays a big role in your ability to talk and chew food, so discomfort caused by TMJ can be a real drain on your quality of life.
While the exact cause of TMJ Disorder is still something of a mystery, there are a number of treatment options that can provide relief. These can range from physical therapy to mouth guards. In some severe cases surgery may be necessary but all treatment options begin with a diagnosis from your dentist.
What Are The Symptoms of TMJ Disorder?
TMJ Disorder can present a range of symptoms. Among the most common is pain, tenderness or swelling in the face, jaw, and ears. Clicking or popping of the jaw can also be a sign of TMJ issues; some patients even experience migraine-like headaches. While these symptoms on their own don’t necessarily indicate TMJ problems, your dentist will make an assessment based on a comprehensive dental exam and X-rays, along with your recent dental and medical history.
What Causes TMJ Disorder?
One of the most commonly identified causes of TMJ Disorder is teeth grinding. While teeth grinding doesn’t always lead to TMJ Disorder, it can have a significant effect on the jaw joint. Many patients grind their teeth at night (usually stress related) and may not even be aware that it is a problem. Daytime teeth or jaw clenching (again caused by stress or anxiety) can be a factor as well. TMJ issues can also be caused by trauma to the jaw or neck (car accidents are a big culprit). Less common causes are out there as well, such as excessive gum chewing. Chewing certain sugar free gums can have dental health benefits, however going overboard can put a lot of pressure on the jaw.
Women And TMJ
A large majority of TMJ Disorder cases are diagnosed in women, and medical experts have identified a number of possible reasons. Medical professionals have suggested a link between the hormone estrogen and joint pain. Women are also more prone to vitamin/mineral deficiencies (like low magnesium levels) which could play a role in TMJ. Minor differences in the structure of the jaw joint in men and women, may also play a role according to experts. Lastly, women may simply be more susceptible to stress and anxiety related behaviors that lead to TMJ problems.
What Are The Treatments For TMJ Disorder?
One of the most common treatments for TMJ is a plastic dental splint, also called a mouth guard or bite appliance. TMJ mouth guards are custom made for your mouth and can cover all or some of your teeth. There are two options for mouth guards: a stabilization splint to prevent teeth grinding (often worn at night), or a repositioning splint designed to pull the lower jaw forward (usually worn both day and night). If you and your dentist decide that a mouth guard is the way to go, he will fit you for a splint specifically designed for your mouth. In cases of TMJ Disorder, this custom fit is absolutely essential, so ordering a generic mouth guard online is not recommended.
Your dentist may also recommend physical therapy, massage, relaxation techniques and even counseling for stress and anxiety. Many patients find these approaches (usually in conjunction with a mouth guard) can be helpful in relieving TMJ Disorder symptoms.
In severe or chronic cases, jaw surgery is an option—from an arthroscopic procedure to surgical joint replacement. But these options are considered a last resort when more conservative approaches aren’t working. Most dentists will prefer a less invasive solution like a mouth guard.
TMJ Answers: Start With Your Dentist
TMJ Disorders can be confusing. Many patients initially find themselves with unexplained symptoms and some unanswered questions. But as the dental and medical communities learn more about TMJ Disorders and likely causes, treatment options are increasingly successful. A dental exam and X-rays are the best first step in finding undiagnosed TMJ issues, so in cases of unexplained jaw or facial pain, your dentist’s office is a good place to start looking for answers.