by Brent Hearn •
Painful clicking in the jaw. A “pop” when you open your mouth for a big yawn. Discomfort while chewing. If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you may have some experience with temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMJ. (Various other acronyms are used, including TMJD, TMD, and TM, but we’ll be using “TMJ” since it’s probably the most common colloquial usage.)
The list of TMJ symptoms can vary widely in range and severity. In addition to jaw pain, they can include dental issues, pain in the ears, pain in the neck, scalp, and shoulders, and headaches, just to name a few.
If you suffer from TMJ, the good news is you’re not alone. Symptoms are quite common. One study found that an estimated 20% to 40% of the adult population is affected to varying degrees. Beyond the ol’ chestnut about misery loving company, though, this news may offer little solace. Those who are hurting are more concerned with one question: How do I make it go away?
The Challenges of Treating TMJ
Treatment for the symptoms of TMJ varies widely. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill to make it go away. The temporomandibular joint is among the most complex in the human body, and its uniqueness can make it difficult to treat.
There’s still much to be learned about TMJ. It’s a complicated disorder—really, a number of disorders—that can affect multiple areas of the body, and treatment can draw from a variety of areas of expertise. To compound the issue, there’s still much more research that needs to be done—and much more that needs to happen to translate the findings from existing research into actionable care for those affected by TMJ.
Since it’s not certain that a given treatment will provide long-term relief (sometimes it can even make things worse in the long run), many experts advise using the most conservative, reversible treatment(s) possible for a given patient.
If your TMJ symptoms are mild and/or intermittent, it may be possible to self-manage your treatment. (As always, though, consult with your care provider first.) Here are just a few options for self-care TMJ treatments:
- avoiding extreme jaw movements
- a diet consisting of soft foods
- stress management techniques
- jaw stretching/relaxation exercises
Alternative (non-permanent) treatments include but are not limited to:
- Medications – This could involve short-term use of over-the-counter pain medications or—if prescribed by a doctor—stronger pain or anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, and/or antidepressants.
- Stabilization splints
- Chiropractic – Chiropractic intervention can involve manipulation of your jaw joint and muscles to relieve pain and tension.
Considering the use of aggressive, invasive treatment should be taken extremely seriously. (Again, many experts strongly advise utilizing the most conservative treatment necessary.) These treatments include:
- crown and bridge work
- occlusal adjustment (grinding down teeth)
- surgical procedures
- artificial implants
To learn more about TMJ, check out this brochure on TMJ disorders from the National Institutes of Health. Consult with your care provider to develop a care plan that best fits your diagnosis and particular situation.
National Institutes of Health: TMJ Disorders
Dynamic Chiropractic: Evaluating the TMJ: Imaging and Diagnostic Considerations
Healthline: How to Find Relief with TMJ Massage
International Journal of Dentistry: Prevalence of TMJ Disorders among the Patients Attending the Dental Clinic of Ajman University of Science and Technology–Fujairah Campus, UAE