Everything You Need to Know About (TMJ) Jaw Pain

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What exactly is TMJ (Jaw Pain)?

The TMJ—or Temporomandibular Joint—is located just in front of each of your ears. Basically, it’s a fancy technical term for the jaw joint. This joint is actually quite a unique part of the body because it contains both a hinge and sliding motion. This unique functionality allows us to open and close our mouths and slide our jaw forwards, backwards and to the side.

Not to get too technical again, but the TMJ sits in the hollowed area of the skull called the fossa, and it has a disk to cushion the bone and assist with movement. In order to have movement, the joint has a number of ligaments and muscles.

How do I know if I’m experiencing TMJ pain? 

One of the symptoms of TMJ pain is discomfort around the joint area, particularly while eating. You might also experience an aching feeling in and around the ear, or side of the face. Headaches can also be a symptom of jaw pain and the jaw may lock preventing the mouth from closing.

Is TMJ pain more likely for some people?

Studies have shown that TMJ pain tends to occur more frequently in younger people, among females, and is generally more common among those of Asian background.

What causes TMJ pain?

Jaw pain can be caused by a number of things:

  • Trauma to the jaw joint e.g. a blow to the face.
  • An uneven bite.
  • Bruxing, which is the clenching or grinding of the teeth.
  • Osteoarthritis, which is the wearing down of the tissue at the end of the bone.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis, which is an inflamed joint.
  • Or other conditions such as chronic fatigue, Fibromyalgia (muscle pain/tenderness) or Gout

What can I do about it?

Of course, the very first step in treating jaw pain is to visit your dentist. Your dentist will assess the joint and feel around both the joint itself and the associated muscles. They’ll also examine your bite and the movement of your jaw. Though there may be clicking or grating noises these are not often signs of major jaw problems. You’ll most likely have a radiograph (X-ray) taken, as well as any other scans (CT and MRI) which may be required in order to properly assess the bone and soft structures surrounding the joint.

Once assessed, your dentist will help create a treatment plan which can include, in addition to resting the jaw as much as possible:

  • Maintaining a soft diet.
  • Applying hot or cold packs to the side of the face.
  • Taking anti-inflammatory or muscle relaxant medication.

Your dentist will also assess your teeth to identify areas that may be causing your bite to be uneven. This includes high spots on fillings, crowns or uneven dentures. An uneven bite from a loss of teeth on one side of the mouth can also contribute to more pressure on one TMJ joint causing pain on that side.

Additionally, you may be provided with a splint to combat any teeth grinding or given some gentle exercises to help strengthen your jaw. Many people who experience TMJ pain find that managing their stress and anxiety levels also helps to alleviate jaw pain.

How long does TMJ pain last for? 

Most jaw pain is temporary and can be resolved in a week or two. Unresolved jaw pain can be referred to a specialist, who’ll undertake further tests and treatments, such as arthroscopy, Botox or surgery.

The important thing to remember is that if you’re experiencing jaw pain, don’t ignore it: Make sure you see your dentist!

By Dr Diana Simmons, Dentist