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The Cardiologist's Wife - TMJ Causes and Treatments
Jun 27, 2018

TMJ disorder, or temporomandibular joint dysfunction, is a relatively common condition that refers to a set of symptoms that can result from several diverse causes. TMJ may result from trauma, arthritis, habits such as clenching or grinding the teeth or the misalignment of the teeth, the upper and lower jaws or the jaw joints themselves. Whatever the cause, the condition can be quite painful.

One of the most complex joints in the body, the bones, muscles, ligaments, and discs that form the TM joint on either side of your face work together to allow you to open and close your mouth, chew, speak and swallow. You are able to move your jaw forward, backward, side to side and up and down. When something prevents the joint from working as designed, a TM disorder may result.

Symptoms vary from person to person and may not seem to related to the jaw at all but include headaches, earaches, dizziness, tenderness of the jaw joint, pain or difficulty while chewing, pain in the teeth or along the jaw. Some people experience a clicking or popping noise when they chew or find that their jaw “locks” up and won’t open. The pain can even spread to your neck and shoulders. You should avoid chewing gum and cradling the phone between your cheek and shoulder, which may cause the jaw and neck muscles to cramp and aggravate your condition further.

Sometimes the symptoms of TMJ disorder will go away without any treatment or you may be able to fix the problem at home by applying a heating pad periodically, avoiding hard, crunchy foods for awhile to allow the jaw to rest and taking NSAIDS like ibuprofen to relieve pain and swelling. If you’ve been under a lot of stress, relaxation techniques may help calm teeth grinding and jaw clenching.

If the pain persists, it is time to see your doctor to rule out other problems such as a sinus infection or your dentist. Either may prescribe a muscle relaxer to help relieve pain and give your jaw a chance to heal. Physical therapy is also useful so you can learn some beneficial exercises to stretch those tight neck and shoulder muscles or a massage can ease the pain. You may be referred to a TMJ specialist for evaluation and treatment but many dentists have experience in treating TM problems.

The next form of treatment if none of the above is successful would be a mouth guard - a plastic device which fits over the teeth to prevent you from grinding your teeth or clenching your jaw. Your dentist will make an impression of your teeth for a customized fit. These devices can be quite expensive so check with your dental insurance to see if they are covered. You may find that a combination of treatments is necessary to fix all the problems caused by TM disorders.

When I first experienced TM disorder, I thought I had a bad tooth as I had pain in one specific tooth when chewing. The dentist said my teeth were fine and upon further examination, he found that my jaw joint was extremely sore, resulting in the diagnosis of TM disorder. I tried muscle relaxers, avoiding hard foods and ibuprofen for a couple of weeks and saw an improvement. Then I began to have headaches and terrible pain that radiated along my jaw or even along my front teeth. When the crippling neck and shoulder pain started, I went back to the dentist and was fitted for a mouth guard. I also saw a physical therapist and a massage therapist for the knots in my neck. Things are much better now after a couple of weeks but by no means completely gone, so have patience but be persistent until you get relief.

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