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What is TMJ?: The Causes & Treatment

What is TMJ?: The Causes & Treatment

Can’t bite into your favorite foods because of pain in your mouth? Have pain and difficulty yawning? Find yourself clenching your mouth or have you been told you grind your teeth at night? Then there’s a possibility that you have a disorder of your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). TMJ issues are more common than you think: over 10 million Americans are affected, however, only 10-20% of those affected seek medical attention.

What is TMJ dysfunction and how does it present?

TMJ disorders are issues with the joint of your jaw or the muscles surrounding.  This typically affects more women than men. For most people, they experience pain or difficulty with opening the jaw, chewing, and may also complain of occasionally clicking. The pain is usually a product of pain receptors located in the neck and face region, so typically people can also experience neck pain and headaches.

Those with disorders of the TMJ frequently complain of:
  • Jaw pain or tenderness
  • Jaw fatigue
  • Difficulty opening or closing the mouth typically when eat, yawning, or talk
  • Clicking or grinding sound of the jaw
  • Tinnitis/Ringing in your ears
  • Headache or Ear Aches
  • Neck pain
  •  Dizziness

Causes of Jaw pain?

There are several causes of TMJ pain that can range from poor habits to trauma.

Teeth grinding or clenching (bruxism)/ High Stress

May occur at any time, but typically is more present at night. This involuntary action places excessive stress into the joint and the surrounding muscles.  Additionally, research has shown that those who experienced TMJ pain have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is also likely linked to poor coping mechanism

Poor Postural Awareness

Muscular imbalances in the neck and shoulder region may contribute to a forward head posture. Frequently those with TMJ issues present with a forward head position that not only causes increased tension to the neck and shoulder region, but also to the muscles at the base of the skull. The forward head posture leads to an increase stress on the TMJ joint

Traumatic injury

Injury to the jaw such as from dental procedures or from whiplash can impact that joints mobility in addition to the muscles around the neck and the jaw.

Arthritis

The wearing out of the joints of the mouth can contribute to pain in the jaw. This is due to the decrease in space between the joint leading to excessive contact between the two joint surfaces.

Treatment

Frequently TMJ pain resolves on its own without treatment, however those who continue to experience pain and discomfort should seek medical attention from a dentist or a physical therapist. A dentist may also recommend a mouth guard to decrease the strain placed from teeth grinding a night. It is also important to avoid activities that may exacerbate or increase your jaw pain

  • Avoid gum chewing or eating hard foods
  • Minimize the amount of opening of your jaw
    • Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth to control the opening
  • If you work in front of the computer take frequent breaks to minimize stress on your neck
  • Avoid clenching your teeth
  • Avoid cradling your phone between your head and neck
  • Practice relaxation techniques

How PT Helps

As physical therapists, we work on decreasing the pain, improving the mobility of the jaw, and correcting muscular imbalance. Examination and evaluation of both the cervical spine and jaw is necessary to determine each individuals needs and formulate a treatment plan to address the issues. Treatment strategies typically include: Manual Therapy, Pain management modalities, postural correction, relaxation techniques, and exercises emphasizing jaw mobility and muscular flexibility of the jaw and neck.

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Sherwin De Guzman PT, DPT, OCS
In his spare time, Sherwin enjoys spending time with his family and friends watching movies, exploring new places to eat, and enjoying Southern California. He enjoys keeping himself active, spending time outdoors, working out, swimming, snowboarding, and rooting for the UCLA Bruins!