TMJ stands for temporomandibular joint. TMJ syndrome is a set of conditions involving jaw and facial pain and limitations in jaw movement. The temporomandibular joint connects your jaw to your skull. If you put your fingers directly in front of your ears and open your mouth, you’ll feel this joint. When this joint is injured or damaged, TMJ sydrome can result.
Many things can cause TMJ syndrome, including a physical injury (like from a heavy blow or whiplash), teeth grinding or clenching, misalignment in the teeth or jaw, arthritis, gum chewing, or poor posture in the neck, and upper back. Women in their childbearing years make up the majority of people treated for TMJ syndrome.
Common signs and symptoms of TMJ syndrome include:
- Pain in the jaw, especially in the area around the TM joint
- Stiff or sore neck and jaw muscles
- Clicking or popping in the jaw
- Ear pain, ringing or cracking sounds, or a sense of fullness in the ears
- Blurred vision
- Pain in the face or cheeks
- Numbness or tingling in the chin
- Dislocation of the jaw after opening the mouth wide (such as when yawning)
There is no standard diagnostic test for TMJ syndrome. Your dentist will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms, medical and dental history, a physical examination, and if necessary, imaging tests like x-rays and CT scans.
Your dentist will probably recommend conservative, noninvasive approaches to treat your TMJ syndrome, which are reversible and do not make any permanent changes to your jaw or teeth. These can include:
- Applying heat packs to ease the pain,
- Practicing meditation, biofeedback or other relaxation techniques to reduce tension in the jaw
- Eating softer foods
- Avoiding gum chewing and nail biting
- Over-the-counter pain medications
For more severe or persistent TMJ, your dentist may prescribe:
- Physical therapy, including exercises to strengthen jaw muscles, massage, and training to improve posture and correct jaw alignment
- Prescription medications such as pain medications, muscle relaxants, or anti-anxiety drugs
If your TMJ still does not improve after trying these basic treatments, your dentist might recommend other options, including:
- Trigger-point injections of pain medicine or anesthetic directly into sore facial muscles
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which applies low-level electrical to relax the jaw and muscles of the face
- Ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to reduce pain and swelling and improve circulation
- A bite guard to reduce teeth grinding and clenching, or stabilization splint to relieve muscle strain. Splints should be used only for a short time and not cause any permanent changes in the bite.
If you have tried all of your other treatment options and still struggle with pain, limited ability to open the jaw, and other problems, your dentist or oral surgeon may recommend surgery. This would only be an option if your TMJ has been caused by structural problems in the joint itself, which is uncommon. Surgery cannot help with TMJ syndrome that has an external cause, such as tooth grinding. If a dentist, oral surgeon or other doctor recommends surgery for TMJ syndrome, it is important to get a second opinion.