Temporomandibular joint and muscle disorders (TMJ) are a group of disorders that cause dysfunction and pain in the jaw and surrounding muscles that control jaw movement.
Temporomandibular joint dysfunction, also known as TMJ disorder or TMD, is the most common jaw disorder that affects over 10 million Americans.
Many people experience temporary pain in the jaw joint and muscles throughout their lifetimes. This occasional discomfort typically doesn’t signal a serious underlying condition, such as TMJ. Some people develop long-term symptoms that occur more frequently, which often results in the diagnosis of a temporomandibular disorder.
Patients with TMJ experience different kinds of pain, including headaches, earaches, or discomfort when opening or closing the mouth.
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, pain in the temporomandibular joint and the masseter muscle while resting is significantly higher in females than in males. This is related to the difference in hormonal, biological, and anatomical characteristics.
Women in their “child-bearing years,” typically 35 years or older, make up 90 percent of all TMJ sufferers due to hormonal changes during this stage of life. Men and women with extreme jaw pain due to stress, habits, or genetics are also at risk of TMJ.
“Women are twice as likely to develop TMJ than men, especially mothers and those taking oral contraceptives.”
The temporomandibular joint connects the mandible (lower jawbone) to the temporal bone on both sides of a person’s head. The joint moves the mouth seamlessly up and down and side to side, which allows people to chew, swallow, talk, and yawn.
When people open their mouths, the round edges of the mandible (lower jaw), referred to as condyles, slide along the temporal bone’s joint sockets. Then the condyles move back into their original positions as the mouth closes. A soft disc also sits between the temporal bone and condyle, which keeps the jaw movement smooth.
An individual with TMJ will feel pain in the jaw joint and muscles that control movement for a long period of time.
There are many possible causes of TMJ. Symptoms often start without an obvious reason. This makes distinguishing the difference between normal jaw pain and a TMJD disorder difficult for medical professionals.
Jaw popping and clicking sounds are common in many people and are not necessarily correlated with TMJ. Although, if there is consistent clicking or popping of a TMJ, that means it is dysfunctioning. It is possible to have TMJ without any pain.
Risk factors for developing TMJ include:
The most common sign of a TMJ related issue is connected to pain in the jaw joint and chewing muscles.
In some cases, TMJ symptoms go away on their own. Although, if the jaw pain persists for a few months, TMJ may be present. Common symptoms include:
There are a few different treatment options available for patients suffering from TMJ.
Depending on the severity of pain, the amount of time the pain has been present, medical history, and habits, your dentist will recommend the best option. This includes conservative remedies, arthrocentesis, arthroscopy, medications, therapy sessions, or a combination of treatments.
During the first assessment, the dentist reviews the patient’s detailed medical history. Next, they look for symptoms following an intra-oral and extra-oral examination, which includes examining inside the patient’s mouth and outside (near the jaw, neck, and temple). Dentists also typically check the joint area while the patient opens and closes their mouth.
Medical imaging, x-rays, and measuring how far a patient’s mouth opens may also be necessary for the proper diagnosis of TMJ.
TMJ is not life-threatening, and most cases of the disorder respond well and experience pain relief with conservative treatment. These treatments include joint rest, lifestyle changes, and eliminating old habits.
Dentists recommend the following:
Arthrocentesis is a surgical procedure that uses sterile fluid to wash out the TMJ. The goal of the surgery is to return the cartilage disc to its correct position and remove any debris inside the joint.
Patients are asleep under IV sedation during arthrocentesis surgeries, which eliminates any pain or discomfort. A local anesthetic is also administered to the TMJ using two needles.
During the procedure, the maxillofacial surgeon will manipulate your jaw, realign the cartilage disc, and then administer a steroid drug into the joint.
Arthroscopies (“keyhole surgeries”) use a small telescope/camera to diagnose and treat TMJ. Similar to arthrocentesis surgeries, patients also undergo sedation.
During the procedure, an arthroscope is inserted into a small incision the surgeon makes in front of the ear. Then the surgeon removes any scar tissue around the joint to relieve pain and discomfort.
Medications are administered after minimally invasive or invasive TMJ surgeries. They may also be used to relieve pain for patients with minor TMJ symptoms.
Common medications include:
Oral therapies are used to treat patients with minor TMJ symptoms. They are minimally invasive and less expensive than surgeries.
When used in combination with conservative treatments, therapy effectively relieves symptoms and pain long-term for most patients. Two types of therapies for TMJ include:
Surgeries are usually partially covered under a good health care plan. The prices below reflect treatment costs without insurance:
$50-$300 (per session)
The cost of TMJ treatment depends on the type chosen, state of residence, and how many treatments are needed. In many cases, dental insurance does not cover the total cost of TMJ mouthguards, or they only cover a large or small percentage.
Bagis, Bora, et al. “Gender Difference in Prevalence of Signs and Symptoms of Temporomandibular Joint Disorders: a Retrospective Study on 243 Consecutive Patients.” International Journal of Medical Sciences, Ivyspring International Publisher, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3444974/.
Demerjian, G. Gary, et al. Temporomandibular Joint and Airway Disorders: a Translational Perspective. Springer, 2018.
Hollins, Carole. Basic Guide to Dental Procedures. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
“TMJ Disorders.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Dec. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tmj/symptoms-causes/syc-20350941.
“TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint and Muscle Disorders).” National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nidcr.nih.gov/health-info/tmj/more-info.