Maybe you’ve been experiencing tenderness around your jaw and face, or a “clicking” or “popping” sound when you open your jaw. These strange sensations can be caused by a condition called Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (or TMJ Disorder), and symptoms can range from mildly annoying to debilitatingly painful. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, you may be one of the 10 million Americans who suffer from TMJ disorders. Let’s look at what causes TMJ Disorder and what you can do to fix it.

What is TMJ Disorder?

Your Temporomandibular Joint is the ball-and-socket-like hinge on either side of your mouth—where the top of your jaw meets the bottom of your skull—that allows you to open and close your jaw. TMJ Disorder is typically defined as irritation or decay of the cartilage or even bone in this joint and can make movements like opening and closing your jaw to speak, chew food, or yawn difficult or even painful. TMJ Disorder is more common in women than men and can affect one or both sides of the jaw. Aside from pain, stiffness, or discomfort in the actual joint, TMJ Disorder can also include similar feelings around the face and neck—and can worsen if left untreated for too long.

What are the Symptoms of TMJ Disorder?

TMJ Symptoms can vary depending on a variety of factors including, age, weight, body structure, and stress levels. Typically, TMJ Symptoms include:

  • Pain or stiffness in your jaw, face, or even neck and shoulders and ears when you chew, speak, or open your mouth wide.
  • Experiencing a “locked” sensation when your mouth is either in the open or closed position.
  • Clicking, popping, or grating sounds in the jaw joint when opening or closing your mouth, or while chewing. This sensation may or may not be painful.
  • Fatigue of the facial muscles.
  • A sudden feeling of discomfort or misalignment when your teeth meet. May potentially be treated by tooth alignment procedures or surgery.
  • Swelling in your face around the cheeks or jaws.

TMJ symptoms can encompass a wide range, and not all the symptoms listed above are necessarily caused by TMJ. Therefore, it’s important to see a dentist or orofacial pain specialist to be accurately diagnosed before attempting any treatments.

What Causes TMJ Disorder?

What causes TMJ Disorder is unknown, but different lifestyle factors and medical conditions have been found to influence the occurrence and severity of TMJ symptoms.

Stress can cause you to tense the muscles in your jaw and face, potentially leading to TMJ-like symptoms as the muscles around the jaw are overworked.

  • Bruxism is a condition that causes you to grind your teeth throughout the night. It is considered a sleep movement disorder and can cause similar issues.
  • Acute trauma to the face or mandible can also cause TMJ. If the joint is damaged and heals incorrectly, TMJ symptoms can occur due to misalignment of the jaw, degradation of the joint, or inflammation around the site of injury.
  • Arthritis is a condition that weakens and erodes the body’s joints and can have a profound effect on the Temporomandibular Joint as it is used so frequently.

How is TMJ diagnosed?

Because TMJ symptoms can be caused by other dental or orofacial problems like tooth decay, sinus infection, or gum disease, it’s important to have your TMJ symptoms professionally diagnosed. Because TMJ is not solely a dental problem yet can cause complications to your bite pattern and oral health, TMJ is described as an orofacial pain disorder, and usually requires a medical specialist.

Your dentist can start by taking dental X-rays of your mouth to rule out tooth decay or other more obvious dental issues. Afterward, they may refer you to an orofacial specialist, who will start by asking you about your medical and dental history before conducting a physical exam. They will start by examining your jaw to ensure that the disc joint is aligned properly and doesn’t make any popping or clicking sounds when opening or closing.

Your orofacial pain specialist might also order a CT or MRI scan to better show the inner structures of your mouth and joints. Imaging like this can pinpoint where your discomfort or pain is happening and better equip the specialist to prescribe treatment.

Because TMJ Disorders are both medical and dental conditions, it’s important to find a provider that understands the overlap between the two. If you believe that you are experiencing TMJ symptoms, come see the orofacial pain specialists at Northern Nevada Center for Orofacial Pain. We are the only clinic certified to offer TMJ treatment in Reno and we’re ready to offer you a preliminary consultation today!