Temporomandibular joint disorder refers to short-term or chronic pain in the jaw and surrounding facial muscles. The TMJ (temporomandibular joint) is where the upper and lower jaw meet; it connects the lower jaw to the skull in front of the ear. It is a flexible joint that allows the jaw to move smoothly, enabling you to chew, talk and yawn. Everyone has two of these joints, one on either side of the face. They are complex, made up of muscles, tendons, blood vessels and bones in a sliding “ball and socket” joint that is one of the most important and frequently used joints in the body. When the TMJ is healthy and balanced, both jaw joints can open and close comfortably and we can eat, talk and yawn without pain. TMJ problems can cause pain in the head, neck, face and ear, a locked jaw, jaw pain, jaw clicking or popping and problems with chewing and biting (source).
TMJ pain disorders usually happen because of unbalanced activity or overuse of the jaw muscles. However, really any sort of damage to the jaw area can cause TMJ problems. Because of this, symptoms of TMJ tend to be chronic or long-lasting. Treatment of TMJ is usually directed at the causes, since the disorder rarely happens on its own. TMJ symptom information can be found from a variety of sources, including online and from your doctor. Online TMJ information can vary in its accuracy, however, so it’s always best to speak to a doctor if you’re concerned about your symptoms. For a quick reference, the following is a brief TMJ symptoms guide to help diagnose a potential TMJ disorder:
TMJ Symptoms Guide
Ear Pain TMJ problems can cause such pain in the ears that people often mistake it for an ear problem, when it is in fact a problem with the jaw. Pain is usually felt below or in front of the ear. Other related symptoms can include ringing in the ears, hearing loss and general aching around the ear area. Some people may even feel a clogged, “stuffy” feeling in the ears or hear a hissing, buzzing or roaring rather than ringing.
Headache/Dizziness A common symptom of TMJ disorders is headache, usually beginning in the area around the ear. Around eighty percent of people with TMJD report headaches, so it’s a telltale sign of the disorder. Pain can move anywhere around the skull, forehead and back of the head and result in even migraines and mild to severe dizziness as a related symptom. Headaches may feel similar to a sinus infection, or the hair and/or scalp may be sensitive or painful to the touch.
Pain in the Face and Jaw From a general aching to sharp pain, the face and jaw are some of the first areas to suffer from TMJ. People with TMJ problems may feel pain when talking, eating and yawning, or have problems opening and closing their mouth. The face and jaw may even swell in the affected area.
Neck and Shoulder Pain Face and jaw pain from TMJ disorders can radiate down to the neck and shoulders, causing aches and pains there. In extreme cases, back pain (upper and lower) can occur. Some people with TMJ problems suffer from arm and finger tingling, numbness and stiffness.
Eye Problems Some TMJ symptoms related to the eye include bloodshot eyes, blurred vision, and pain above, below and behind the eye. Some may also notice light sensitivity or feel pressure behind the eye and/or excessive watering of the eye.
Jaw Clicking and Popping In people with TMJ disorder, the jaw will often click and pop because the joint is off balance. Some may hear the sounds, others will only feel the uncomfortable movement.
Locked Jaw TMJ problems can cause the jaw to lock wide open, or prevent it from opening at all. The jaw may also diverge to one side when opening, causing awkwardness when chewing and problems with bite.
Teeth and Gum Problems People suffering from TMJ disorders may clench their teeth which can cause tooth pain, teeth grinding and overall mouth sensitivity.
Muscle Spasms In addition to jaw and muscle pain, TMJ disorders can cause muscle spasms in the jaw, face, neck and other related areas.
Treatment for Symptoms
Treatment for symptoms of TMJ varies depending on the type and intensity, but all treatments should focus on the causes of the problem. Treatments begin with self-care practices and nonsurgical therapies at first, leaving injections and surgery as later options. It is always best to start with more conservative treatments so as not to alter the structure of the jaw unless absolutely necessary. Some basic, self-care treatments for TMJ and its symptoms include the following:
Applying heat/cold packs Placing an ice pack on the affected side of the face for 10 minutes will relieve pain and allow for some simple stretching exercises to improve jaw movement. After exercising, apply a warm towel to the area for 5 minutes.
Medications Over-the-counter pain relievers and muscle relaxers can provide immense relief for the painful symptoms of TMJ disorders.
Eating soft foods While treating TMJ problems, eat soft foods that won’t aggravate the problem. Yogurt, cheese, mashed potatoes, soup, cooked vegetables and fruits are all good options.
Wear a Mouth Guard A plastic mouthpiece for the teeth will prevent you from clenching or grinding your teeth. They can also help correct the bite, preventing further problems in the future.
Jaw Exercises Talk to a doctor or physical therapist about gentle exercises that can improve jaw mobility and relieve muscle pain and TMJ symptoms. A recent study showed that regular jaw exercises improved jaw functioning more quickly than splints or other more aggressive treatments.
Other Things to Remember: You can relieve TMJ symptoms at home by just keeping a few more simple tips in mind. Try sleeping on your side and supporting yourself with a pillow between your shoulder and neck to relieve symptoms at night. Always keep a conscious effort to relax your facial muscles, and consider relaxation techniques such as meditation. When yawning, use your fist to support your chin to prevent the jaw from locking. And finally, avoid clenching your jaw, chewing gum or other activities which may put stress on the jaw muscles.