Open and close your mouth. Now think about how often you do that during a given day—and for how many functions that are vital to living. When you eat, talk, yawn or breathe deeply, express yourself, take care of your teeth, or even just get a drink of water, opening and closing your mouth is essential and a natural part of your day. You likely don’t think about how often you open and close your mouth—unless you experience chronic pain at the hinge of the jaw (the temporomandibular joint, or the TMJ). When you consider the frequency and necessity of a functioning TMJ, and the way the hinge of the jaw is located right near a major nerve, jaw pain is a serious problem that needs to be treated. How do you know if your TMJ symptoms are bad enough to seek treatment?
What are TMJ Symptoms?
We’ll start by addressing the main TMJ symptoms that may indicate a problem. If you experience any of the following, it may be time for a consultation:
- Jaw pain when chewing. Chewing should be easy. When you have a TMJ problem, your jaws can easily tire, or you can even experience jaw pain caused by the jaw sliding out of place.
- Jaw clicking or popping sounds. A sound when you open your mouth wide means your jaw is slipping on and off the protective cartilage between the upper and lower jaw at the joint. This progresses into a grating sound over time, as bone starts rubbing on bone.
- Limited jaw opening, locking, or difficulty closing teeth. If the TMJ is functioning properly, your jaw should open and close smoothly. If TMJ problems aren’t treated, your jaw can lock in place, which is extremely painful.
TMJ problems are not only focused on the jaw. The TMJ is located right next to a main face nerve, which means pain from a TMJ problem radiates to other areas and may masquerade as a separate issue before the TMJ disorder is discovered.
- Headaches. If your headache is caused by a problem with your TMJ, it often will be felt in the temple area, behind the eyes and at the back of the head.
- Neck and Shoulder Pain. Pain from TMJ headaches can radiate to the neck and shoulders.
- Facial Pain. As mentioned, the location right by a facial nerve can mean that a TMJ that does not function properly can lead to pain throughout your face.
- Ear Pain. TMJ can cause chewing muscles to spasm, which can lead to earaches, congestion, or even ringing in the ears.
- Dizziness. The same muscle spasm problem can lead to dizziness or loss of balance.
- Sleep Problems. People with TMJ may have trouble entering deep stages of sleep. This is because they wake during the night if pain from the jaw muscles are spasming. Clenching and grinding can also cause frequent waking.
How do I know if my TMJ Symptoms are bad enough to treat?
As you can see from the list above, TMJ symptoms can vary widely. However, it’s important to note that a TMJ problem can be progressive. What starts as jaw tiredness can lead to clicks and cracks, which can lead to bone grinding, which can lead to that painful locked jaw. If you experience any of the above symptoms chronically, it is worth having your TMJ examined. Early treatment of TMJ problems makes it easier to resolve all symptoms.
How do you treat your jaw’s symptoms?
Some of the more obvious TMJ symptoms can lead you right to the correct specialist—a dentist who is trained in treating TMJ. Other symptoms may be confusing, as you think you are experiencing a separate issue. Migraine-like headaches could lead you to a neurologist. Ear pain and congestion could lead you to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist. If these doctors can find no other issues, it’s worth checking with a dentist who can evaluate your TMJ.
A dentist who is trained to treat TMJ can help because TMJ problems are often caused by the location of the jaw, with the lower portion too far back in the mouth. Or they can be caused by grinding teeth at night.
A dentist will assess your TMJ by understanding your dental history, examining your teeth and dental arches, and assessing your range of motion and head and neck muscles. The dentist will also take TMJ X-rays and conduct a computerized joint vibration analysis, which will check for any noise or vibrations at the TMJ joint. During treatment, a dentist can stabilize the jaw, and even adjust teeth positioning to bring the jaw back into proper alignment.
The great news is, if you are concerned about your TMJ symptoms, you don’t need to hesitate to have them examined. You can schedule a consultation, which can get you started in understanding if your symptoms are caused by a TMJ problem, and what steps can be taken for treatment—getting you back to the easy, pain free daily use of your jaw!