TMJ is an abbreviation for temporomandibular joint, the joint that connects each side of the jaw to the skull. TMJ is also commonly used to refer to temporomandibular disorders. When someone references a TMJ disorder, he or she is usually referring to pain in the jaw and the muscles that control jaw movement. TMJ disorders may develop if there has been an injury or trauma to the joint or if arthritis has damaged the joint’s cartilage.
Those with certain pre-existing conditions may be at a higher risk of developing TMJ, including those with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, a history of clenching the jaw or grinding the teeth, or some connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of a TMJ disorder include:
- Pain or tenderness of the jaw
- Pain on one or both sides of the temporomandibular joint
- Pain in and around the ear
- Difficult or painful chewing
- Facial ache or pain
- Difficulty opening or closing the mouth
- Clicking sound when chewing
- Clicking sound when opening and closing the mouth
TMJ disorders may be diagnosed by a primary care physician or by a dentist. A physical exam is required to make a diagnosis. The physician or dentist will examine the jaw to pinpoint any painful spots. He or she will test the patient’s range of motion in the jaw and will listen as the patient opens and closes the mouth. In some cases, the physician or dentist may order images to assist with or confirm a TMJ disorder diagnosis. These images may include X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs of the mouth and jaw.
Sometimes TMJ symptoms go away on their own after a few weeks without any kind of treatment. If there is no pain and no limitation to the jaw’s movement or ability to chew or talk, then treatment is usually not prescribed. However, even if the jaw is fully functional, jaw pain may be present and may be severe enough to require treatment. In those cases, physicians will recommend a treatment plan based on the severity of the pain and the disorder.
Home TMJ Treatments
Sometimes TMJ pain relief may be achieved by making simple changes to diet or doing some at-home care. The TMJ Association recommends trying the following home treatments:
- Eat soft foods
- Avoid chewing gum
- Apply ice packs or moist heat to the jaw
- Over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories
- Jaw exercises
- Meditation and relaxation
When home remedies don’t do the trick and pain is persistent and reducing the quality of life for the patient, then physician intervention may be necessary. Common physician-prescribed treatments include:
- Medications such as:
- Pain relievers
- Muscle relaxers
- Physical therapy
If medications and other non-surgical treatments don’t work, physicians may consider other approaches to TMJ treatment. These may include surgical intervention or other procedures such as corticosteroid injections or various kinds of surgeries.