Jane* had suffered from pain in her jaws for as long as she could remember. When I met Jane for the first time, she was a part of special ops in the military, and, she was now more aware of the pain with each passing day. Jane presented with stiffness in the jaw area, pain through her jaw, face and neck, and, painful popping in the jaw. After a thorough initial evaluation, I referred Jane to a TMJ specialist for a detailed evaluation with special focus on her jaw and the related joint.
The TMJ or the temporomandibular joint is a “ball and socket” type joint that connects the lower jaw to the head. The lower jaw has a ball shaped head which abuts with the socket of the head bone or skull. In order to prevent bone-to-bone friction, there is a small cushion or capsule between the two bones. Proper functioning of this joint enables an individual to talk, chew, swallow and yawn. There are four major muscles and a few other accessory muscles that attach around this joint and the upper and lower jaw. These muscles help in opening and closing of the jaw. For most people who suffer from TMJ dysfunction, the pain arises from a problem with this joint or the muscles involved.
There are many possible causes of TMJ dysfunction. These maybe:
- Stress and Teeth Grinding.
- Dislocation of the jaw and joint capsule.
- Injury or trauma to the jaws or joint.
- Mal-alignment of the teeth and jaw.
TMJ dysfunction may manifest in a variety of ways. The most common symptoms are:
- Headache or head pain, pain in the temples or forehead, which may resemble pain of a migraine or sinus pressure.
- Shooting pain that travels through the face, jaw or the back of the neck. Shoulder aches and backaches with tired and sore muscles of the neck may also occur.
- Stiff jaw muscles with pain in the cheek muscles.
- Limited movement or locking of the jaw with clicking or popping in the jaw. The clicking or popping may or may not be associated with pain.
- A change in the way the upper and lower teeth fit together which maybe because of clenching and grinding. The back teeth maybe painful and feel “loose”.
- Ear pain or ringing may manifest without any ear problems or infection.
- There maybe limited mouth opening with locking of jaws. Jaws may lock open or closed.
A TMJ specialist is a dentist who practices with special focus on the joint and the involved muscles. After a detailed evaluation, the specialist or your dentist, might recommend some treatment modalities. Some of these may include a simple lifestyle change such as,
- Eating softer foods,
- Avoiding chewing gum,
- Avoiding biting your nails,
- Modifying posture.
Sometimes, mild therapeutic aids may come in handy. These may include,
- Modifying the pain with heat packs,
- Practicing relaxation techniques to control jaw tension, such as meditation or biofeedback,
- Exercises to strengthen your jaw muscles,
- Medications prescribed by your dentist or physician; for example, muscle relaxants, analgesics, anti-anxiety drugs or anti-inflammatory medications.
The TMJ specialist or your dentist, in some instances, may also recommend any or all of the following, depending on the severity of the diagnosis of the dysfunction.
- A night guard or bite plate to decrease clenching or grinding of teeth.
- In some cases, fixing an uneven bite by adjusting or reshaping some teeth.
- Orthodontic treatment may also be recommended to correct alignment of teeth.
- TMJ correction devices, as recommended by the specialist.
In rare cases, surgery maybe needed for correction.
After years of suffering, Jane was finally able to get relief through surgery. Jane is one of the rare cases of TMJ dysfunction needing corrective surgery but for most people, relief could be very simple. Pain is a very debilitating 'disease'. And TMJ dysfunction pain is not something one has to live with, considering all the advances in modern dentistry. A simple visit to the dentist can help one take care of this problem and lead a pain free life. These are the healthy joys that we live for!
*Name changed to protect privacy.