Understanding the TMJ Disorder

Tidewater Physical Therapist, TMJ Therapy

Perhaps you wake up in the morning with a sore jaw, the result of clenching your teeth in your sleep.

Maybe your jaw clicks or pops.

Or you’re a woman, which makes you more susceptible to jaw problems.

You could have a temporomandibular joint disorder – which affects the joints, muscles and tissues that connect your lower jaw bone (the mandible) to your skull. It’s often simply referred to as TMJ.

About 35 million Americans suffer from TMJ at any given time, according to The TMJ Association. Depending on the severity, TMJ can affect a person’s ability to speak, eat, chew, swallow, make facial expressions and even breathe. In fact, TMJ pain is the second most common source of facial pain next to dental pain or toothache. In some cases, it can cause dizziness, ringing in the ears and vision problems.

Although both men and women can have TMJ, it’s much more common in women in their childbearing years (between the ages of 20 and 40), likely due to hormones. Two-thirds of the people who suffer from TMJ are women. Most people, however, have relatively mild or periodic symptoms that may improve on their own with simple home therapy or physical therapy.

Although the cause of most TMJ issues isn’t clear, there are some known contributing factors. They include:

  • Autoimmune diseases, including forms of arthritis such as Lyme disease, osteoarthritis and scleroderma.
  • Infections.
  • Injuries to the jaw area.
  • Dental procedures.
  • Stretching of the jaw from having a breathing tube inserted.
  • Habitual gum chewing.
  • Stress.

TMJ can also accompany other conditions in the body, including chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic headaches, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, irritable bowel syndrome and sleep disorders. Because of that, doctors try to rule out other problems before diagnosing TMJ.

TMJ pain can occur in muscles or joints. Muscle pain tends to affect the side of the face with related headaches. Muscle pain is often worse with eating or at night, when people tend to clench their teeth in their sleep. Joint pain usually occurs just in front of the ear, or in the ear.

Because the exact cause of TMJ disorders isn’t always clear, identification can be difficult. TMJ is often diagnosed by a dentist who may send a patient to an oral surgeon for further treatment, but doctors usually prefer conservative, nonsurgical methods of treatment.

There are also a number of physical therapy treatments that can help, including methods that involve heat, ice, electrical stimulation and ultrasound. Stretching exercises and massage to help relax and ease tension can also be very beneficial, as can a variety of home care practices. Take care not to eat crunchy, chewy or hard foods, avoid excessive gum chewing, and try using mouth guards at night.

Simple changes in your day-to-day routine can help, too: Keep your teeth slightly apart as often as you can to relieve pressure on the jaw and practice good posture to relieve neck and facial pain.