So, What is TMJ Anyways?

What is TMJ?

SmileChances are that these days, if you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard someone talking about their “TMJ” issues and how it’s been affecting their daily lives. I mean, it affects about 15%-20% of the population or about 1 in 5 people! There are multiple causes of TMJ related issues, and if untreated, pain and inflammation around the face and jaw can intensify, leading to a poor quality of life. Knowing the cause is the first step to treatment, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Considering that at Bear Health we specialize in helping people get over pain, TMJ is no stranger to us. So in this article we hope to help you make an educated decision as to whether or not it’s time for you to visit your dentist, ask to get a diagnosis, and potentially start your healing journey as soon as possible!

TMJ in its simplest sense is an acronym for the Temporomandibular joint, the area in which your mandible (jaw) connects to your Temple (a landmark on the skull). However, it’s also a term that has been commonly and incorrectly interchanged with TMD (Temporomandibular Disorder) used to describe a disorder in the jaw causing one or a number of symptoms to the person suffering from the disorder and can last many years. It can be attributed to many factors such as arthritis, genetics, over clenching of the jaw or grinding your teeth (some people may not even be conscious of the fact that they clench/ grind as they do it in their sleep!). Chronic clenching of your teeth and even nail biting can cause repetitive motion injury in the bone structure by moving a shock absorbing disk found in the joint out of alignment, as well as muscle, tendon, or ligament damage. Even tooth decay has been found to contribute to the problem according to some dentists.

Sign 1: Chronic Pain

One of the first and often most obvious signs of a TMJ disorder is chronic (constant/long term) pain. The temporomandibular joint or TMJ acts like a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull and any type of dysfunction can lead to discomfort and pain. It can be perfectly normal to have minor aches and pains around the jaw and face if in a tense situation, or have started a diet consisting of foods that involve more chewing than you’re used to. However, if there is long term or intense pain, this is a red flag. The jaw would be quite tender to the touch especially by your ears and behind your ears. Often times if you place your finger on your jaw and open your mouth wide and then shut it there will be some sort of popping. This popping is called crepitus. Some people will even hear a grating or popping sound when they open and close their mouth. With regards to the TMJ, the pain can feel like a toothache and may even stem from tooth decay thus resulting in pain all around the face and ear. It can also feel like a headache or migraine, especially if there has been damage to the muscle, tendon or ligaments around the jaw. The pain can even travel down your neck, into your upper back and shoulders as jaw clenching can lead to tension in the muscles in that area, to include the traps, sternocleidomastoids, and scalenes (located in the back and front of the neck).

Sign 2: Inflammation

JawAnother sign of TMJ issues, that usually accompanies chronic pain, is inflammation around the jaw, ear, and/or face in general. There can be visible swelling in these areas, and they will often feel very tender to the touch or while in use. The swelling will often start in the jaw and transition down into the neck. This can affect chewing and talking, making it painful to perform either of these daily tasks, and it can result in a limited range of motion of the jaw and facial features. Many people will opt for different food choices due to how hindering chewing becomes, so quality of life becomes poor and an immediate solution is often required as living off of soft foods is not ideal. TMJ Inflammation can be due to arthritis, especially if multiple joints are affected, and the pain and stiffness can worsen with age if not taken care of. It can also lead to the once smooth motion of the joint, which includes both hinging and gliding, to move in improper alignment. Inflammation can be a sign of infection as well, so it must be dealt with as quickly as possible. A possible infection could be something like a root canal which is why regular dentistry visits are important. Another reason for TMJ is jaw clenching or teeth grinding. Often times people are completely unaware of the fact that they clench their teeth at night. A simple mouth guard can help alleviate much of this pain but should be properly fitted by a dentist.

Sign 3: Numbness

Many people report feeling a “numb” or “tired” sensation on one or both sides of their face, which is another common sign of a TMJ disorder. Inflammation and damage to the TMJ area, especially long term, can desensitize the nerves, leading to the “numb” feeling. Certain diseases can cause nerve damage as well, so seeking professional help to rule this out first is a good idea. A trip to the dentist can help by either ruling out or fixing tooth related issues as well. Maintaing yearly dentist trips for x-rays can help prevent any tooth related issues but also help identify TMJ before it comes on or worsens. If this numbness is due to lack of blood flow, it may help to start doing some facial exercises to get mobility back. Massages or applying heat therapy can give some relief, too. The jaw can be quite tender so applying slight pressure from an accupressure standpoint is all that is needed. Some people may describe inflammation as a feeling of numbness, either way both can be early signs of TMJ issues. Anti-inflammatory medicines or foods, such as NSAIDs or for an all natural option turmeric and OPC-95 is a great option and can help mitigate these symptoms, but it’s best to do so as soon as possible. OPC-95 is composed of pure grape seed extract, which is a heavy antioxidant support that helps alleviate inflammation.

Sign 4: Noisy Jaw

DentistClicking or grinding noises and sensations can be felt while talking, eating or just moving your jaw, which can also cause pain. Injuries in or around the TMJ can lead to improper alignment and be the reason behind these noises. Some people even describe experiencing a painful bite while they eat, in which there’s a loud crack or crunch and it feels as if the upper and lower jaw didn’t quite come together evenly. While there is a healthy range of movement in the jaw, to include hinging and gliding, too much repetitive motion can wear down the joint in usually an uneven manner. The jaw should, for the most part, move silently. Any noise in a joint, especially if it is coupled with any form of pain or discomfort, is a warning sign. Worst case scenario, it may be caused by a grinding of the bones or ligaments and can lead to irreparable damage.

Sign 5: Reduced Range of Motion

A more serious sign of TMJ issues, especially in the long term, is feeling “Locked” or “Stuck” in the jaw meaning a person is having difficulty opening and/or closing their mouth. In some more severe cases, a person’s mouth may cease to fully close or open. Needless to say, this is a really debilitating side effect, which is why it’s so important to take note of the earlier signs to help prevent it from getting to this point. A reduced range of motion in a joint is not usual or healthy, and shying away from proper exercises to help encourage mobility will only make it worse. Seeking professional help in order to find the right approach to healing the TMJ as soon as possible is the best way to prevent a “stuck” jaw. Whether it be finding the appropriate exercise prescription or consuming anti-inflammatory medicine and/or foods, there are many things you can do to improve TMJ issues.

Disorders of the Temporomandibular joint are usually due to too much repetitive motion, such as clenching or grinding of the jaw, and if not caught early on, can lead to some serious issues. The signs to look out for are: chronic pain, inflammation, numbness or tingling, clicking or grinding noises, and, in the worst case, a jaw that can’t fully open or close. It is best to seek help at the first sign so as to avoid unnecessary pain and a poor quality of life. Take note of jaw clenching or any other constant, unnecessary strain to the TMJ area to avoid problems in the future. Find appropriate treatments, such as anti-inflammatories, facial exercises, heat application, massages, acupuncture, or even a mouth guard to prevent teeth grinding while sleeping. As you can see, there are many options to help with TMJ disorders, so seek professional help to diagnose and treat these issues as soon as possible.

Author: Carla and Armando Castro trainers at Bare Health