Gently place your index fingers on either side of your face just in front of your ears, and then open and close your mouth. What you’re feeling are the rounded ends of your jawbone as they glide across the sockets in your temporal bones or the lower lateral areas of your skull that include your inner ears and temples.
Your temporomandibular joints (TMJs) are like a pair of sliding hinges that connect either side of your jawbone to your skull. Besides allowing you to open your mouth with ease, your TMJs give your jaw the ability to move back and forth and side to side as you chew.
But for an estimated 10 million adults in the United States, TMJ dysfunction is a chronic and often painful problem that can limit jaw motion and make it difficult to chew normally and speak coherently. Here’s what you should know.
Understanding TMJ disorders
When your temporomandibular joints are healthy and in good working order, your jaws move freely, smoothly, and comfortably. Damaged or dysfunctional temporomandibular joints, on the other hand, can give rise to a variety of symptoms, ranging from jaw and facial tenderness to recurrent headaches.
TMJ disorders may occur when a wear-and-tear condition like arthritis degrades the cartilage that cushions the jawbone in its socket. They can also develop if a traumatic injury damages the small, shock-absorbing disc that facilitates fluid jawbone movement. Common causes of TMJ pain include:
- Teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism)
- Improperly aligned jaw or bite
- Arthritis-related joint degeneration
- Disc erosion or misalignment
- Impact-related joint or disc damage
While any problem within the complex system of bones, muscles, ligaments, and discs that make up your TM joints can lead to chronic jaw and facial pain, some TMJ disorders develop without an obvious or identifiable underlying cause.
Recognizing TMJ symptoms
For some people, a TMJ disorder starts as an audible clicking or popping sensation in their jaws whenever they talk, chew, or open their mouths. Although these sounds and sensations may be worrisome or even irritating, they’re often painless—at least early on.
For most people, TMJ dysfunction comes with some degree of jaw tenderness or facial pain, either of which may (or may not) be accompanied by acute pain in one or both of the TM joints. Common symptoms of a TMJ disorder include:
- Stiff or overly tight jaw muscles
- Radiating jaw, face, or neck pain
- Tenderness around one or both ears
- Difficulty or pain while chewing
- Increased tooth pain or sensitivity
Jaw pain, facial tenderness, and harsh clicking sensations can be just as frustrating as they are concerning, especially if you also have trouble eating or talking — advanced TMJ dysfunction can lead to chronic headaches, limited jaw movement (lockjaw), or a permanently misaligned bite.
Diagnosing TMJ dysfunction
As a seasoned oral health expert, Dr. LaBombard has extensive experience in the diagnosis and treatment of TMJ and its related complications, including bruxism. If he suspects you have a TMJ disorder based on your initial symptoms, he’ll examine your jaws to locate the source of your pain.
After gently pressing on your TM joints to check for signs of abnormal joint erosion, muscle tenderness, and inflammation, he may have you bite down on a dental probe to measure your jaw strength or assess your TM joint range of motion by having you open your mouth as wide as you can.
Dr. LaBombard may also feel and listen to your TM joints as you open and close your mouth to check for signs of abnormal motion, clicking, and popping.
Finding effective TMJ solutions
Although your specific TMJ treatment plan is determined by the underlying cause of your problem and the severity of your symptoms, the vast majority of TMJ disorders respond well to a combination of conservative care solutions.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can take the edge off persistent discomfort and help you sleep better at night, but if you prefer to avoid medication, ice packs or moist heat can also provide substantial relief.
Temporarily switching to a soft diet also helps reduce inflammation and pain so your jaws can relax, while learning how to massage and stretch your jaw muscles every day can help you keep them relaxed as time goes on.
If you’re like many people, grinding or clenching your teeth is a cause or consequences of your TMJ disorder, Dr. LaBombard can prescribe a custom oral appliance, or night guard, for you to wear when you sleep.
If you’re ready to put an end to chronic jaw pain, we can help. Call our Austin, Texas office today, or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. LaBombard any time.