Thumbnail image of: Temporomandibular Joint: Illustration

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Disorder

What is temporomandibular joint disorder?

Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder) is pain in the joint where your jaw meets your skull, just in front of your ears. TMJ disorder is more common in women than men.

What is the cause?

The cause of TMJ disorder is not known. Possible causes include:

  • Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth. You may clench your jaws or grind your teeth when you are feeling stressed or when you are sleeping. If you do it mainly when you are sleeping, you may not even know you are doing it.
  • Dentures that do not fit properly
  • Frequent chewing of gum or ice
  • Physical or dental problems, such as teeth that don’t fit together properly or problems with the shape of your jaw
  • Swelling and irritation caused by arthritis or injury.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom is pain in your jaw joint, usually on one side only. The pain is usually dull but sometimes it may be sharp. In most cases the pain is worse when you move your jaw, especially when you are chewing. If you grind your teeth at night, the pain may be worse when you wake up in the morning.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Clicking, popping, or grating sounds when you move your jaw
  • Trouble completely opening your jaw or pain when you bite down
  • Headache
  • Ear pain or earache

The symptoms of TMJ disorder are similar to the symptoms of other conditions, such as ear problems. You should see your healthcare provider to find out what is causing your symptoms.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms, activities, and medical history and examine you. You may have an X-ray.

How is it treated?

If there is a problem with the way your teeth fit together when you bite, your healthcare provider may refer you to a dentist. Your dentist may make a hard splint for you to wear during the day to keep your jaw from closing completely.

Your healthcare provider may give you a shot of steroid medicine to lessen any swelling and irritation caused by arthritis or an injury.

Other treatments may include:

  • Taking muscle relaxants for a few days
  • Practicing relaxation techniques
  • Learning ways to manage stress

Your healthcare provider may refer you to a physical therapist for treatment, such as massage and exercises that gently stretch the muscles and help with relaxation. If your pain is related to stress, counseling and medicine can help.

Surgery is rarely needed.

How can I take care of myself?

To help relieve your symptoms:

  • Avoid overusing your jaw. You can rest your jaw by eating only soft food. Do not chew gum or ice.
  • Try not to clench your jaw or grind your teeth. Your healthcare provider may recommend a bite block (also called a night guard). A bite block is a plastic mouthpiece that stops your teeth from grinding together. It’s usually worn only at night.
  • Put a warm, moist washcloth on your jaw for 20 minutes, 4 to 8 times a day. Do not use a dry heating pad.
  • Massage the joint by pressing gently with your fingertips and moving them in a circular direction.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about taking a nonprescription pain medicine.

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent TMJ disorder?

Because the cause of TMJ disorder is often not known, it can be hard to prevent. But the following may help:

  • Don’t chew a lot of gum or ice.
  • Try not to grind your teeth.
  • See your dentist for treatment if your teeth do not fit together well when you chew.
  • Wear proper protective head gear that fits well in all contact sports.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-07
Last reviewed: 2014-02-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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