What Is A TMJ Dysfunction? An Introduction To Causes And Effects


TMJ dysfunction or disorder is also known as temporomandibular joint disorder or TMD. While the medical world has advanced considerably over the decades, there is still very little known about TMJ.

This is something that dentists will usually see in patients, as it affects the jaw. They can start to see some of the earlier signs, which has led to them doing more of the research into the condition, side effects, and treatments for it.

Here’s a look at everything that is known about TMJ disorder and what you can do if you or a child is diagnosed.

What Is TMJ Dysfunction?

Before considering the causes and treatments, let’s look at what TMJ or TMD is.

Patients with this disorder share that they have pain in the joint. It’s a condition within the temporomandibular joint, which is the joint that connects the lower part of the jaw to the skull. There are two joints at the ears. Most of your mouth muscles will require this joint to move around, including speaking and chewing.

The pain isn’t necessarily going to appear in the joint. Some patients experience pain in their ears, their face, or their neck. Headaches are also common, as the nerves throughout the head are severely affected.

While the pain symptom is common, some dentists will see the physical symptoms. A person may not be able to open their jaw fully, making it difficult to eat or speak. There are some issues with biting, making chewing harder. Jaws can be placed in locked position, or there may be a popping or clicking sound while chewing.

The disorder affects more women than it does men. This confounds the dentists, as it doesn’t always make sense why female’s muscles and joints are more at risk.

Chewing is the most common everyday task affected. This is because of the pressure that chewing causes on the jaw. It creates shock within the joint, which the cartilage disc within the joint needs to absorb. When the joint is damaged, or the cartilage wears away, the bones and muscles will feel the shock instead. This means pain.

Why Does TMJ Disorder Happen?

As mentioned, very little is known. Dentists don’t even know why patients come in with the condition or what to do about it. There are some theories and some studies that have shown some common beliefs around the condition.

This is a disorder that affects the muscles within the jaw. In some cases, the whole jaw joint can be affected. Because of this, dentists have linked trauma or injury to the jaw or head as the main reason for the disorder arising. Some of the most common patients have had whiplash or a jaw injury.

However, dentists have also noticed the condition in those who grind or clench their teeth. This type of process involves extra pressure on the jaw joint and cause the muscles to work extra hard. Unfortunately, clenching and grinding the teeth isn’t something you can always control. Most people do it in their sleep. While there are sleep aids to protect the teeth, the actual process of grinding isn’t often treated.

Stress can also be a cause of TMJ. When you’re stressed, you will tend to clench your muscles and stiffen your joints. The stress hormones will often make you do this without realizing. You may not even notice that you’re clenching your jaw until you subconsciously think about it or due to some pain.

In some patients, the cartilage disc that absorbs the shock will become damaged, or it moves slightly. This can lead to bone crushing against bone, which causes pain like problems in the fingers or knees. Those who have arthritis are also likely to experience more pain and see TMJ disorder grow.

How Will You Know If You Have TMJ Disorder?

The effects on your body are standard. We’ve covered them in brief.

The most common symptom is a pain. It can be temporary for some and only happen when you’re chewing or moving your jaw. In many cases, the pain is like an arthritis pain. It can also just be a discomfort at first; something that you easily overlook.

It occurs in many women between the ages of 20 and 40. Instead of pain, there may be some discomfort or tenderness around the face. You may not feel it in the joint but in the surrounding area. The ears, mouth, and head are common.

Patients can also struggle to open their mouth wide. This is when the condition is usually noted by dentists. The dentist will struggle to get into the mouth to check because the jaw can’t open enough. Dentists will ask about any other symptoms you may have to see if you are suffering from TMJ dysfunction.

Clicking or popping while moving the jaw is also common. This is commonly heard while chewing at first. Some patients can open their mouths and force their jaws side to side, with a popping sound in their ears. The popping isn’t always painful. It may be uncomfortable at the time, but that discomfort will often dissipate quickly.This is a slight dislocation of the jaw, and patients shouldn’t do it purposely—although at first, it may be a case of finding out what is going on.

In more extreme cases, the disorder will lead to “lock jaw.” This is when the jaw is stuck or locked in a certain position. Some people find they can’t open their mouth at all, while others find they struggle to close their mouth. It can be a scary symptom for some people.

As the disorder continues, there can be some swelling in the body. The immune system believes there is something to attack. Unfortunately, this is an autoimmune disorder. The swelling continues, which can make the pain worse than the actual condition!

There are other symptoms that don’t necessarily seem connected to TMJ disorder. Patients experience dizziness, pains in the ear, head, and neck, hearing problems, tooth pain and even ringing in the ears. These are often referred symptoms.

Is There a Treatment Plan for TMJ Disorder?

Your dentist will want to make sure you have TMJ disorder before suggesting any treatments. This can be done through a physical exam and not just a look at how wide your mouth opens. There will be some signs on your teeth, such as the wearing down of some of them. Your dentist will also look at how your teeth align together, as this can sometimes suggest the jaw has dislocated or a disc has moved.

It can seem scary, but your dentist will help treat your disorder.

The good news is that once the condition is treated, most of the symptoms will disappear. The referred symptoms should completely go away.

The trick is to treat the disorder. Your dentist will often prescribe the treatment and will usually start with a splint. This is known as an occlusalsplint and is usually made of plastic. Don’t worry about the sight; it’s a clear splint. Think of it more like a protective cover that goes between your upper and lower teeth.

Dentists will want to treat the main cause for TMJ disorder. While they don’t know what exactly the reason is, they will assume grinding teeth at first. They will also want to help relax the muscles, which the splint can do. If you have a displaced disc, the splint can often help to move it back in the right place.

Splints work like wrist and leg splits. They help to keep the joints and muscles in place while the repair happens. You won’t usually see any permanent changes to your jaw or your teeth and the splints are just a temporary option.

Your dentist will also often be recommending no dental work while you are going through the treatments. This will include crowns and root canals. They also won’t want you going through any treatment that will change your jaw permanently. The aim is to treat the condition first and then build from there. If you get the dental work while treating your TMJ disorder, you will usually find the dental work doesn’t take.

Dental work can cause damage to your jaw if you have TMJ disorder. This will be another reason your dentist will recommend it. Any dentist that does recommend changes or dental work should be questioned. It’s worth getting a second opinion to make sure you put the health of your mouth first.

Can You Do Anything to Promote Healing?

While you wait for the splint to work, you’ll want to know about home remedies that will help promote healing. Your dentist will likely recommend taking anti-inflammatory medications. While the pills won’t help with the reason for the TMJ disorder, they will help to treat the symptoms. With less swelling in your jaw, you will usually find that the pain symptoms decrease. You may be able to get rid of the referred pain relatively easily.

Depending on the severity of the joint dysfunction, you may also want to consider changing your diet. Many patients will choose to eat a diet of soft foods for a while. They are easier to swallow and will not require too much movement of the joint.

Chewing gum or any candy is usually avoided against. These require the constant movement of the jaw, which will put more strain on your muscles and the joint itself. You cause more shock to that area of the body, which will lead to the cartilage disc damaging further.

If you struggle to open your mouth, you may be given some stretching techniques to follow. They will help to get some movement back into the joint. If you experience pain, you will want to discuss the exercises with your dentist before continuing.

Reducing your stress levels is also highly recommended. After all, your stress could be causing the TMJ disorder to get worse. You will grind and clench your teeth without even noticing at first because of stress. As you learn to understand your body more and the things you do when you are struggling to cope with the stress hormones, you’ll understand the pain better.

There is a range of stress techniques, including exercising, getting a good diet, and meditation. Find something that works specifically for you to add more relaxation in your day.

Finally, some patients have found that warm compresses have helped to ease the pain. The warmth (rather than cold compresses) will help to get the blood flowing. This can help to reduce some of the inflammation within the body and help to ease some of the pain sensations.

Before you try out any therapies that involve moving the jaw talk to your dentist. Dentists will know the severity of the problem and help to offer the right type of movement exercises that will ease the pain and improve movement. They will also know the movements to avoid that cause more pain within the jaw.

Do You Have TMJ Disorder?

Don’t panic too much if you find out you have TMJ disorder. It happens to a lot of women especially. While it’s relatively common, it’s not something that is understood just yet. Dentists are still researching to figure out just why people have TMJ disorder.

The causes above are mainly ones that dentists have noticed in patients. They certainly make sense, considering how it is a joint affected. If you do grind your teeth or you suffer from stress and clenching, you’ll want to look at ways to treat those conditions. This will help to prevent your TMJ dysfunction from getting worse.

Your dentist will work with you closely to repair the damage. You’ll get exercises to help prevent the joint from getting too stiff and medication to ease the pain if you need it. Make a change to your diet and take the time to reduce stress to help prevent your TMJ disorder from getting worse.

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