TMJ Pain — Discover the Causes, Symptoms, and 6 Tips for Relief

Ever opened your mouth wide only to hear a loud pop as your temporomandibular joint (TMJ) moved out of place and back in again? Maybe you even felt a sharp pain when it happened, or you’ve noticed that the muscles around your jaw and neck feel achy and tired a lot.

A lot of people refer to TMJ disorders simply as TMJ. They might say, “My jaw’s been hurting a lot. I think I have TMJ.” What they really mean is their temporomandibular joint might not be working the way it should. 

The temporomandibular joint is the place where your jaw bone connects to your skull. Put your hands on the side of your face with your pointer fingers just in front of your ears. Open your mouth wide, and you can feel your lower jaw move down. You can also feel the ball of the TM joint under your pointer fingers. 

“The temporomandibular (tem-puh-roe-man-DIB-u-lur) joint (TMJ) acts like a sliding hinge, connecting your jawbone to your skull. You have one joint on each side of your jaw.”
– Mayo Clinic

For someone who has a TMJ disorder (TMD), the muscles around that joint — sometimes called “the chewing muscles” — can become sore and painful. The joint itself can feel painful when you’re opening and closing your mouth. In serious cases, the pain can feel deep and achy throughout the side of the face and even radiate into the neck and shoulders. 

November is TMJ Awareness month, so let’s explore TMJ disorders more. What are they, what causes them, and what can you do about it? 

What is a TMJ Disorder?

“[TMD] refers to any dysfunction of the TMJ. Many people use the terms TMJ and TMD interchangeably. TMJ dysfunction occurs when the muscles and ligaments around your jaw joints become inflamed or irritated. The condition may be acute or chronic, and the resulting pain may be mild or severe.” – Cleveland Clinic

The TMJ Association says that TMJ disorders routinely affect between 10 and 35 million people in the US. Though researchers don’t yet understand why, they seem to affect more women than men, and particularly women who are of childbearing age. 

Causes of TMJ Dysfunction

It would be nice if we could tell you that research has shown us exactly what causes TMJ dysfunction, but that isn’t the case.

In fact, the TMJ Association debunks a few myths on their website. One of those is: “TMJ is a well-researched, understood condition, and health care providers receive adequate education and training.” 

What’s really true is: “TMJ is a scientifically neglected, poorly understood condition; TMJ research is in its infancy. Given this, health care professionals receive little, if any, evidence-based education or training.”

It’s a fact that we still have a lot to learn about disorders of the temporomandibular joint. What we do know is that what causes them varies widely. Some known contributors are:

  • Erosion of the small disk that’s supposed to absorb shock in the joint
  • Physical injury to the joint — a blow to the head, a car accident, or other serious injury
  • Wear and tear that comes when individuals grind their teeth while sleeping
  • Damage caused by arthritis or other joint conditions
  • Infections

Symptoms of TMJ Disorder

How do you know if you may have a disorder of the joint versus temporary discomfort from falling asleep in an awkward position on the couch or picking up the violin you hadn’t played in years?

The TMJ Association lists pain as one of the primary indicators of a joint disorder. That’s not surprising, of course, but what may be is that the pain doesn’t only show up in the jaw joint. It can also go down into the neck and shoulders, and sometimes even into the ear. 

Other symptoms the TMJ Association and Cleveland Clinic highlight include:

  • Stiffness in the jaw muscles
  • Clicking, grating or popping sounds when you’re opening your mouth
  • Limited movement in the joint, maybe even so extreme that the jaw locks and won’t open
  • Recurring headaches
  • A feeling that your bite just isn’t quite right
  • Earaches, ringing in the ears, or pressure in the ears

The TMJA reminds us that occasional feelings of discomfort or even occasional clicking sounds in the jaw aren’t anything to worry about. But, if the symptoms persist or become worse, it’s a good idea to seek medical attention.

How to Get Relief

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms and thinking you may be struggling with a TMJ disorder, here are some ideas for finding relief from the pain and discomfort:

    1. Reduce the stress you may be experiencing. If you’re not able to eliminate sources of life stress, find ways to manage it better:
      • Exercise
      • Meditate
      • Take a hot bath
      • Get a massage
    2. Stop chewing gum. Reduce the pressure on your jaw joint when you eliminate this habit that’s hard on the chewing muscles and joints.
    3. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. If inflammation has invaded your temporomandibular joints, a diet filled with colorful vegetables and fruit can help fight the inflammation and reduce the pain.
    4. Drink anti-inflammatory teas. Green teas, herbal teas with turmeric, and other herbal options can also help eliminate the inflammation that’s contributing to the pain.
    5. Eat soft foods when the pain is acute. Soft, easy-to-chew foods will reduce the strain on your jaw joint. Stay away from tough meats, raw vegetables, and other foods that are harder on the jaw muscles and joints.
    6. Try physical therapy. A good physical therapist (PT) knows the muscles well and can potentially identify the source of the problem — whether that’s a strained muscle or one that’s having trouble relaxing again after the trauma of an injury. PTs can also give you targeted exercises to retrain the muscles to function the way they were meant to.

If you’ve tried the above remedies, and the pain in your temporomandibular joints isn’t going away or is getting much worse, reach out to your dentist for an examination to rule out any underlying medical condition you may not be aware of.

TMJ disorders affect millions of people in the US every year. You don’t have to struggle with TMJ dysfunction alone. Reach out to the team at TrueCare Dentistry if you or someone you know is suffering from TMJ pain.