Medical terms can be confusing and overwhelming for some patients and even medical professionals from time to time. You may have heard your friends and family describing their diagnosis of TMJ, with symptoms of a clicking jaw or earaches, while others refer to it by a different name, TMD. Though these terms can sound the same, they refer to different conditions and we are here to offer you a better understanding of what TMJ and TMD are and how they may affect you.
TMJ and TMD
TMJ is an abbreviation for the temporomandibular joint which connects the mandibular, or your lower jaw, to the temporal bones of the skull. The TMJ is one of the more unique joints within your body as it allows you to move your jaw forward, backward, and side to side so that you can chew, talk, sing, yawn, and more. This joint can be found just in front of your ears on both sides of your head.
Any problem with the muscles, ligaments, discs, bones, or the joint itself are known as temporomandibular disorders or TMD and refers to the actual disorder, where the jaw joint is misaligned and causing problems such as pain, inflammation, and inability to move or operate the jaw. However, these problems or conditions are often incorrectly called by the joint name of TMJ instead.
What are the causes of TMD?
There can be a variety of causes for TMD and can arise from problems with the jaw, the muscles near the jaw, or the joint itself. If you notice some of these symptoms, it is important to see your doctor who may refer you to a specialist to determine the cause of the oral problem. Some common causes for TMD include:
- Injury to the joint, jaw, or muscles along your neck and face
- Grinding or clenching your teeth which puts pressure on the joint
- Movement or dislocation of the soft cushion, or disc, between the joint parts
- Arthritis of the joint
- Stress, which can cause you to tighten facial or jaw muscles
- Tooth/jaw misalignment
Signs & Symptoms
Patients with TMD often experience severe pain and discomfort that can be temporary or chronic. Symptoms depend on the severity and cause of your condition and can show on one side or both. There are many signs and symptoms of TMD that can overlap with other conditions, which makes a diagnosis by your doctor all the more important.
Some of the most common symptoms of TMD include:
- Pain in the face, jaw, or ear area
- Pain or pressure around the ears, face, and behind the eyes
- A clicking or popping sound when opening or closing the mouth
- Dislocation of jaw
- Locked, stiff, or stuck jaw
- Tenderness of jaw muscles
- Limited jaw movement
- Swelling of the face
- Dental occlusion (the way the upper or lower jaw/teeth fit together)
As stated above, many of the symptoms of TMD can overlap with other conditions such as tooth decay, gum disease, sinus problems, or arthritis. To determine the cause, your orthodontist will conduct a physical examination and medical history review.
During your appointment, your jaw will be tested for pain or tenderness, and your doctor will examine how your jaw works when you open and close it while listening for clicks, pops, or sounds when you operate your jaw. Your bite and facial muscles will also be tested. It is not uncommon for x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans to be required to determine the cause as these images can provide insight into the joint, surrounding tissues, and structures of your jaw. Depending on the diagnosis, you may need to be referred to another doctor or specialist for further evaluation and treatment.
Several different treatment options are available depending on your condition and the severity of your symptoms. In most mild cases TMD can be treated with self-care practices at home. Home methods include:
- Taking over-the-counter medication to relieve muscle pain and swelling
- Using moist heat or cold packs
- Eating soft foods or cutting your food into smaller pieces so you chew less.
- Avoiding hard, crunchy, or chewy foods
- Limiting extreme jaw movements that force you to open your jaw wide
- Reducing stress levels
- Performing jaw stretching exercises
If your symptoms do not improve with these home remedies or if your case is more complex, your doctor may prescribe pain medication, anti-inflammatory medicine, muscle relaxants, or even Botox to reduce tension in muscles and nerves. Your doctor may also provide you with custom made bite guards or splints to prevent clenching or grinding of your teeth.
Other treatment options may include low-level laser therapy, ultrasound therapy, or low-level electrical stimulation to provide muscle relief. If misaligned teeth or bite is the cause, corrective dental treatment may be necessary. In extreme cases, surgery can help to remove fluid or debris from the jaw or replace/realign the joint.
Every case is unique, and a careful diagnosis and treatment plan will help to address your needs. If you have any questions about TMD or your temporomandibular joint, please contact Dr. L’Tanya Joy Bailey, DDS, MS, PLLC today so that we can help.