The temporomandibular joint, known as TMJ for short, is a hinge that connects both your upper jaw bone and your lower jaw bone together. It is an intricate joint that allows your jaw to move in all different directions thanks to a combination of ligaments, muscles, bones, and discs.
Every now and then, some people have issues with this joint moving smoothly, resulting in discomfort. This is known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD), or TMJ disorder.
So, how do you know if you have it? How is TMJ disorder even diagnosed?
What is TMJ Disorder?
The temporomandibular joint works just as a sliding hinge would, with each joint on either side of the head right by the ear. For different reasons, this joint can begin causing pain, but pinpointing the exact cause of it can be a bit difficult. A few things that could be to blame are:
- Misaligned bite
- Jaw injury
- Bruxism (grinding and clenching)
- Orthopedic issues, such as inflammation, sore muscles, strained tendons, or strained ligaments
- Genetics, such as genes, age, and gender. Women are most commonly diagnosed
TMJ pain can come and go, sometimes showing up out of the blue, causing some minor to moderate discomfort for a short period of time, and then disappearing just as fast. The symptoms include headaches, toothaches, swelling in the joint area, jaw or ear pain, discomfort while chewing, as well as clicking sounds when opening or closing the mouth and difficulty doing so.
Diagnosing TMJ Disorder
Being able to figure out what is causing the TMJ disorder is the only definitive way to find relief from the pain. Though due to the come and go nature of the condition and the many different things that can cause it, a diagnosis could take some time.
First things first, your dentist will do a thorough examination of the entire area, including examining the mouth and jaw for any abnormalities. Feeling and examining the jaw hinge, the jaw muscles, and the structure of the mouth can also provide some insight.
Because lifestyle and certain medical conditions play a role in TMJ disorder, the dentist will often ask questions. For instance getting to know whether or not you work a high-stress job, have a history of teeth grinding or jaw clenching, or if you have experienced any trauma to the jaw. Each of these things can help narrow down the cause of the disorder.
Finally, diagnostic imaging can help to bring things unseen to light. With X-rays, your dentist can see the bones around your jaw in addition to your teeth placement. If more testing is necessary, a CT scan or MRI may provide more detailed images to help with a proper diagnosis.
Treating TMJ Disorder
There are many different ways that TMJ disorder can be treated - and having an accurate diagnosis can help determine the best option. Many choose to apply heat to the jaw and eat soft foods for the few days that the discomfort flares up. Others turn to over-the-counter pain relievers to find some comfort.
One of the most common - and effective - treatments for TMJ disorder is oral appliance therapy. Your dentist can provide custom fit oral splints and mouth guards that can be worn to bring relief to the joint. But, when more attention is needed, orthognathic surgery can be used to correct misalignments and other abnormalities found in the jaw. If successful, this could even reduce the need for other types of treatment.