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What is TMJ?


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It is very hard to focus on anything else when you’re in pain. It’s hard to plan family dinner or the neighborhood cookout when your jaw hurts, or you have a splitting headache, or an earache. It’s time to go to the doctor and with chronic symptoms like those, it could be TMJ.

What is TMJ, anyway?

The difference between TMJ and TMD

People often have trouble telling the difference between TMJ and TMD. TMJ is short for temporomandibular joints, which are the joints that connect the mandible (the lower jaw) to the skull. TMD is the dysfunction of the muscle used for moving the jaw while chewing and the joints that connect the jaw to the skull.

While often referred to as TMJ, the actual disorder causing the misalignment of your joints and muscles is properly referred to as TMD, or temporomandibular joint disorder.

While it is difficult to determine how many people actually suffer with TMJ issues, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates suggest more than 10 million Americans are affected.

What causes TMJ and TMD

“The causes of TMJ disorders or TMD are difficult to determine,” says Ernesto Lang, a licensed physical therapist at INTEGRIS Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation. “The pain may be due to a combination of factors. Issues passed through the genes, arthritis, or injury to the jaw can be at fault. Multiple factors contribute to the muscle tightness that characterizes this condition.”

These disorders are more common among women than men. Other factors known to contribute to TMD are anxiety, stress, depression, poor posture, grinding teeth and excessively chewing gum.

Ear pain and headaches could be symptoms of TMJ

The main symptom of TMD is pain on or around the jaw joints, located just in front of the ear. Pain associated with TMJ disorder may involve the face, eye, forehead, ear or neck.

If you’re experiencing any of the signs and symptoms below, TMJ could be the root cause.

Ear pain

  • Ear pain or cracking in the ears
  • Ringing or popping sounds in the ears (tinnitus) or a sense of fullness in the ears

Mouth and jaw pain

  • Pain that feels like a toothache
  • Pain on the base of the tongue
  • Difficulty chewing

Joint, muscle and nerve issues

  • Pain or tenderness in the jaw, especially on the area of the joint
  • Popping or clicking of the joint
  • Facial pain, mouth pain, jaw pain, cheek pain or cheek numbness or tingling
  • Shoulder or neck pain
  • Tight, stiff or sore jaw or neck muscles

Nerve and equilibrium issues

  • Headaches, including migraines
  • Blurred vision
  • Pain, swelling or a lump in the temple area
  • Dizziness or vertigo

Can TMJ be treated?

Some might believe TMD is solely a dysfunction of the jaw joints, but according to Lang this idea is inaccurate.

“There are many different areas of our body involved in the perfect congruency of the joints,” he says. “We need to be able to recognize all those factors and create a comprehensive plan of care that involves posture, joint movement, muscle assessment, parafunction of the muscle and oral habits of the patient, such as nail biting.”

Lang says after assessing reasons for the dysfunction, a clinician may need to use ultrasound. He or she may then use manual therapy to create joint space and to reposition the disk inside of the joint, relax the hyperactivity around the joint and reposition the head. The patient goes home with a progressive exercise program to rehabilitate the normal mechanic of the jaw joints.

How to prevent TMJ issues

There are many things we need to do to avoid or slow down the onset of TMD, according to Lang. Parents can help their children prevent the symptoms of TMD by recognizing indicators that indicate a predisposition or the beginning of a problem with TMD.

“We need to encourage good posture and exercises while teaching our kids to avoid chewing gum and biting their nails,” Lang says. “Anything that causes constant grinding on the jaw and teeth can cause micro-traumas (to the jaw), which can lead to TMJ issues. We are also seeing a higher number of younger patients with neck pain due to constant use of cell phones, which affects the normal position of the head.”

Managing your health is a priority for people of all ages.  If you are interested in learning more about health related topics that affect you and your family, don’t miss out on more topics from I On Your Health.

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