What Is TMJ?
The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is considered the most complex joint in the human body, facilitating hinging, gliding and rotational movement – most often, an infinite range of combined movements alike. In the U.S., TMJ disorders occur with a peak incidence at 20 to 40 years of age, affecting 15% of this group annually, typically more common in women than men, and resulting in varying levels of discomfort.
It’s important to keep the TMJ healthy. Posture and alignment of the skull to the neck and jaw play a key role in a healthy joint. The relationship of the upper jaw to the lower, as well as neuromuscular coordination, an open airway and a healthy breathing pattern are also crucial to the temporomandibular joint health.
Common signs of TMJ dysfunction can present as pain around the jaw, ear, or temple, clicking or popping when opening or closing the mouth, and the sound of grating produced by friction between two bones known as Crepitus. Also noted as key signs of TMJ issues are lock jaw and jaw dislocation. If you are experiencing a bite change, you should consult your dentist in an effort to assess possible TMJ dysfunction.
So how do you manage common TMJ disorders? Icing provides relief of severe and acute pain; dull chronic pain can be addressed by applying moist heat to the area where pain is being experienced. Chewing soft dietary foods also means lesser aggravation to the TMJ. And of course, anti-inflammatory medications can be utilized for pain and swelling.
There are a number of therapies that can be applied when TMJ dysfunction is diagnosed. Options include physical therapy – specifically jaw exercises – practiced in the early stages of the disorder; splint therapy, orthodontic treatment, and counseling to help patients understand the factors and behaviors that may aggravate their pain.
While a problem with the jaw cannot be attributed to a single cause, treatment protocols should be unique to the instance and patient. For a successful diagnosis, it is imperative that the origin of the pain or discomfort be accurately assessed before treatment is administered, resulting in an appropriate course of action. Surgery should only be considered if all other (reversible) therapies fail and could range from minimally invasive (irrigating the joint to remove debris) procedures, to surgery targeting a repair or even possible joint replacement.
While not life-threatening, if a TMJ disorder is left untreated, the result could be severe chronic pain, in addition to the development of diseases such as depression or anxiety.