Woman applying pressure to her jaw to help alleviate TMJ pain

Your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the sliding hinge that connects your mandible (lower jaw) to your skull (temporal bone). The TMJ is part of a complex system consisting of teeth, muscle tissues, and tendons that allow for multiple functions, including swallowing, chewing, breathing, sucking, opening the mouth, facial expressions, among others.

Dysfunction of the TMJ can result in severe pain that can affect day-to-day activities and your overall lifestyle. Suppose you think you may be suffering from TMJ-related pain or other issues. In that case, it’s necessary to equip yourself with knowledge of TMJ disorders because explaining your current problems to your doctor is essential to getting appropriate treatment.

What is TMJ?

TMJ syndrome, or temporomandibular disorder (TMD), is a disorder of the TMJ and jaw muscles that can cause severe and chronic facial pain, difficulty chewing and, in some cases, lockjaw. Any condition that prevents this complex system of bone, muscle, and nerves from working together harmoniously often results in pain or tenderness in the jaw joint area, neck, and shoulders, and in or around the ears.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, TMJ disorders commonly fall into three main categories:

  1. Myofascial pain – involves pain or tenderness in muscles that control jaw, neck, and shoulder movement.
  2. Internal derangement of the TMJ – Typically involves a displaced disc, a dislocated jaw, or injury to the condyle (rounded edge of the jawbone that merges with the temporal bone).
  3. Degenerative/Inflammation joint disorders – The jaw joint too is susceptible to conditions such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Other health problems can coexist with TMJ disorders, for instance, fibromyalgia, sleep disturbances, and chronic fatigue syndrome. You can have one or more of these conditions concurrently. Whether or not these conditions cause TMJ disorders or share a common cause is still being researched by the medical community. 

What Causes TMJ Disorders?

The exact cause of an individual’s TMJ disorder can be challenging to determine. Trauma to the head, neck, jaw, or the temporomandibular joint – like from a heavy blow or whiplash – can cause TMJ disorders. Besides a physical injury, some other known causes of TMJ disorder include:

  • Arthritis in the joint
  • Chronic stress that causes you to tighten jaw muscles or clench teeth
  • Grinding or clenching teeth during sleep can cause a lot of pressure on the joint
  • Infections, e.g., infections of the TMJ and ear infections where pain radiates down to the jaw
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Dental procedures 
  • Insertion of a breathing tube during surgery

Other common causes of TMJ disorders can be genetics or environmental factors. Violinists, for example, experience TMJ disorders at higher rates than the general population. This is due to the constant strain of holding their instrument under the jaw. Over an extended time, this strain can cause pain and lead to TMJ disorders.

However, TMJ can present even in the absence of all the factors above, making the exact cause challenging to diagnose. TMJ disorders occur more frequently in women than in men. This has led scientists to explore a possible link between female hormones and the development of TMJ disorders. 

A common misconception about TMJ disorders is that a bad bite or orthodontic braces trigger TMJ disorders; however, research has shown this not to be the case.

When To See a Dentist

TMJ often causes severe jaw and facial pain. For many people, symptoms seem to start without any specific cause. TMJ disorders can be temporary, or they can persist over several years. In any case, it’s advisable to seek medical attention if you experience persistent pain or tenderness in your jaw.

Symptoms to look out for include chronic pain or tenderness in your jaw, restricted jaw movement that prevents you from fully opening your mouth, and pain or difficulty chewing.

If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s best to seek out the advice of experienced dentists and TMJ specialists. Contact Kanehl Dental to discuss possible causes and the treatment options that are right for you.