The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) connects the lower jaw to the skull’s temporal bone. By placing your fingers on each side of your face, in front of your ears, you’ll feel the joint move when you open and close your mouth. The TMJ enables many ranges of motion: back and forth, opening and closing, and side-to-side. It’s a sensitive junction through which many important structures pass, including nerves, muscles, blood vessels, ligaments and tendons. Without a doubt, the TMJ is one of the human body’s most complex joints.
What is the TMJ?
What is a jaw disorder?
When all of the TMJ’s components are working properly, you can chew, speak and yawn without any difficulty. But when the two joints are misaligned, or the protective articular disk has shifted or been injured, the joint can’t function properly. This is known as a temporomandibular disorder (TMD).
TMDs affect your ability to chew. They can be muscular, articular or arthritic (inflammatory) in nature. Approximately 50% of the general public will suffer from a TMD during their lifetime, but only 1 out 10 people will see a dentist about it.
Symptoms of a TMD
The symptoms of a jaw disorder often include painful stiffness and blocking, as well as:
- Pain in front of ears
- Pain and discomfort that spreads over the face, jaw, neck and/or shoulders
- Difficulty opening the mouth
- Inability or difficulty closing teeth together
- Headaches and migraines
- Difficulty chewing or speaking
- Sudden occlusion changes
- Joint cracking or grinding
While these symptoms may completely disappear with time, they often become chronic, causing lasting pain.
Causes of TMDs
TMDs have many causes. In fact, they’re due to a complex combination of several factors, including:
A car accident or a head injury sustained while playing sports may have led to a jaw fracture or damage to the articular disk
Bruxism often occurs at night. A subconscious contraction of the jaw causes excessive grinding or gritting of the teeth. The pressure exerted on teeth is several times greater than during chewing, leading to worn, fractured or loose teeth.
Stress and anxiety can affect people in different ways. They can cause increased tension in the back, shoulders and jaw. By repeatedly gritting one’s teeth, jaw muscles become stiff and tired. Compulsive gum chewing and nail biting are other habits to avoid.
Malocclusion (poor contact between teeth)
Malocclusion occurs if the top and bottom teeth aren’t properly supported when the jaw is closed or during chewing. It is caused by:
- Dental overlapping
- Excessive or insufficient overlay
- Jaw misalignment
- Missing or excessive teeth
- Imbalance between top and bottom jaw
- An accident
The following factors can also lead to a TMD:
- Poor posture
- Lack of sleep
- Sleep apnea (snoring)
Approximately 80% of TMDs are temporary and symptoms disappear within six months, without any treatment needed. It’s important to let the jaw relax and to reduce swelling. We recommend:
- Taking mild painkillers
- Avoiding hard foods and intense chewing (gum)
- Avoiding opening your mouth too wide
When a TMD is caused by malocclusion, an orthodontic treatment may be needed. For bruxism, a biteplate at night can reduce friction and help position your jaws. Also, finding ways to deal with stress or avoid it altogether will go a long way in helping you relax.
Treating a TMD first requires a careful, multifactor assessment by a dentist. Then the dentist will develop an intervention plan to address your needs, so that you can achieve optimal dental well-being.