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The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the joint connecting your lower jaw (mandible) to your skull. There are two TMJs, one on either side of the jaw.
You can feel them by putting your fingers on the sides of your head, just in front of your ears, while opening and closing your mouth.
Temporomandibular joint disorders (TMDs) affect millions of people. They cause pain and difficulty with daily tasks, such as eating and speaking.
Usually, TMDs quickly resolve on their own, but in other cases they may be persistent (chronic) and require treatment from a doctor or dentist.
Here are some signs you may have a TMD:
TMDs may be part of a cluster of issues related to stress and anxiety. In addition to the above, you may also experience headaches, sleep problems, and/or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Most causes of TMDs are complex and not well understood.1,2
TMJ or jaw injury are two potential causes of TMDs. But people often start to notice symptoms without any obvious cause.
Alternatively, there may be genetic, hormonal, and/or psychological factors in the development of TMDs. These may have to do with how you experience pain and stress.
TMDs are more common in women than in men, and most women report TMD symptoms between ages 20 and 40.1,2,3
Some experts think TMDs affect women more often than men because of how estrogen affects the way the body experiences pain. Still, evidence is inconclusive.3
You may be at greater risk for developing a TMD if you are involved in an occupation or sport with risks for jaw injury. But most cases of TMD aren’t directly related to injuries.
Painless clicking or popping when opening and closing your mouth is normal and probably isn’t anything to worry about. If pain accompanies these sounds, it may be a sign of a TMD.
TMD symptoms often resolve on their own without any treatment. However, if you’re experiencing persistent (chronic) jaw pain or having trouble chewing or talking, seek professional treatment as soon as possible.
TMDs may first be diagnosed during a regular dental appointment. X-rays can help uncover further information.
By far the most common TMD diagnosis is one of myalgia, or muscle pain, in the jaw muscles.3,4 Arthralgia (joint pain) may also be diagnosed, usually together with myalgia.
Sometimes people with TMD symptoms will be diagnosed with joint disorders or even joint disease. MRI or CT scans may be needed to confirm diagnoses like these.3
Doctors and dentists generally recommend avoiding any treatment that would cause a permanent change to your bite or jaw, such as surgery.
Because many cases of jaw pain and discomfort go away on their own, your doctor or dentist will probably advise you to first minimize stress on the jaw.
They may ask you to take it easy on your TMJs by:
In many cases, these measures are enough to relieve pain and allow the problem to resolve with time.
Your doctor or dentist may end up diagnosing you with a specific type of TMD. If this is the case, or if the above measures don’t help, it may be time for more advanced treatment.
This may include:
Dentists and doctors are unlikely to recommend more complex and intensive treatments, such as surgery right away. Surgery is most often seen as a last resort, meant for especially severe cases.4
Furthermore, anything that involves a permanent change to the way your teeth or jaw bones fit together may actually make the problem worse.1
Before undergoing treatment, first try simpler and less intensive options. Always learn as much information as possible about the procedure you’re considering.
Ask your doctor or dentist about how the procedure works and how it’s intended to help your specific TMD. Ask about the procedure’s risks and consider getting a second opinion from another qualified doctor or dentist.
One kind of surgery for TMDs involves TMJ implants, which replace all or part of the jaw joint.
Your dentist might recommend implant surgery if you have a damaged TMJ due to injury or infection. Implant surgery might also be suitable for fixing a defect in the TMJ that you were born with.1
In general, dentists consider surgery a last resort if simpler treatments have failed. Surgery isn’t without risk. Talk to your doctor or dentist and consider all available options before proceeding.
Tissue engineering, or regenerative medicine, may offer the possibility of rebuilding natural tissue in the jaw. This is an alternative to implant surgery and other surgical treatments.2,5
There are also newer drug treatments that show promise in treating TMD symptoms. Many of these are taken from natural sources, such as plants.6
These avenues of possible treatment are promising, but they’re also new and still developing. It’ll take more time and research for experts to determine how they can apply them to various TMD cases.
Because the causes of most TMDs are uncertain, it’s also uncertain how they might be prevented.
The following, however, may reduce your risk of developing jaw problems:
The majority of TMJ disorders (TMDs) go away on their own. But if you are suffering from persistent jaw pain, you may want to visit your doctor or dentist.
Start with simple, conservative treatments. If those aren’t effective, you may want to try more intensive physical and behavioral therapies.
Surgery, however, should be avoided except as a final resort when other options did not work.
If you think you may have a TMD or have been diagnosed with one, consult your doctor or dentist for treatment advice.