Woman suffering from TMJ pain massaging her jaw

The ball and socket that connects your lower jawbone to the rest of the skull, called the temporomandibular joint, more widely known as TMJ, is a flexible structure capable of a wide range of motion. A fully functional TMJ allows you to eat, talk, laugh, yawn, and do other things with your mouth. However, despite its flexibility, this complex joint can also be the source of pain for many.

It is estimated that about 10 million face and jaw pain cases among Americans are attributable to the TMJ. Temporomandibular joint disorders often present themselves through various symptoms that can include toothaches, dizziness, headaches, shoulder pain, and tenderness around the jaw. Whether the condition is chronic or acute, the hallmark of TMJ disorders is pain. But how is this little joint so painful?

Causes and Risk Factors of TMJ

The TMJ has a bony bump in front of the joint socket that serves as articular eminence and works to keep the jaw in place. The jaw usually slips past this bony eminence and back into place without any issue for most individuals. But in some people, the articular eminence is low enough to allow dropping forward of the jaw, moving it into a position that is too high to slide back into place. This jaw displacement is ultimately what leads to excruciating TMJ pain.

Several factors contribute to the jaw’s propensity to slip out of place. For instance, those who regularly clench or grind their teeth are more vulnerable to TMJ. Other elements that contribute to the development of TMJ disorders include:

  • Jaw injury due to receiving a blow to the face or an accident or injury to the joint
  • Joint arthritis
  • Stress leading to bruxism (grinding your teeth)
  • Erosion of joint disc
  • Gum disease and dental disorders
  • Poorly placed orthodontic braces

Why is TMJ so painful?

The severe pain of TMJ is attributable to the complex makeup of the joint. The jaw requires the use of multiple muscles, ligaments, discs, and bones working together to allow the different movements of the joint. If any of these structures are out of sync, there’s a high risk of adversely affecting the vast network of nerves that sit in front of the joint. Since these nerves are connected to several different structures in the face and the neck, the pain associated with TMJ can be widespread.

TMJ pain is most commonly felt in the ears, eyes, cheeks, forehead, tongue, throat, teeth, and mouth. Some of the symptoms that might indicate a TMJ disorder include:

  • Persistent or episodic pain around the TMJ joint or ear
  • Pain when chewing or talking
  • Chronic pain around the face that doesn’t have an apparent cause
  • Popping or clicking sound when opening the mouth
  • Locking of the jaw in an open or closed position
  • Headaches
  • Dental sensitivity

If you suspect the pain around your face is due to a TMJ disorder, you need to see a doctor immediately to avoid the risk of further joint damage.

Treatment of TMJ Pain

Although TMJ disorders can be very painful, in most cases, they are acute and resolve spontaneously on their own without medical intervention. However, if the pain or tenderness becomes persistent, here are some remedies that can help alleviate the symptoms:

  • Medications—you can relieve mild TMJ pain by taking over-the-counter pain and anti-inflammation drugs like NSAIDs.
  • Relaxation techniques—stress and chronic teeth grinding or clenching significantly contribute to TMJ pain. Relaxation techniques coupled with night guards or cold/hot therapy can help you eliminate the pain and reduce stress.
  • Orthodontic treatment- Poor dental alignment can also cause TMJ pain. If that’s the case, seeking orthodontic treatment will help eliminate your pain, but it may take time before you see an improvement.
  • Surgery- Severe cases of TMJ disorders that do not respond to other therapies, might require surgery to correct the disorder.

Even a mild TMJ disorder can cause arthritis, permanent jaw dislocation, or even cause nerve damage if left untreated, which is why it is essential to see a dentist as soon as possible. Get an appointment with our expert team at Kanehl Dental if you are experiencing TMJ symptoms.