What is TMJ?

Originally Published: March 15, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 16, 2014
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Dear Alice,

What is TMJ? What kind of doctor handles this problem?

Dear Reader,

Open wide and say ahhh… OK, maybe not. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) refers to the joint where the lower jaw (aka, mandible) meets the temporal bone of the skull. We use the TMJ every time we chew, talk, or yawn. Talk about working overtime! Although TMJ refers to a part of the body, often, "TMJ" also refers to disorders/dysfunction that affect the…er, TMJ area. A variety of health care providers can treat TMJ disorders. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, it is estimated that about ten million Americans are affected by TMJ disorders, whose symptoms may include:

  • Pain/tenderness in jaw, face, or neck
  • Discomfort while chewing or biting
  • Headache
  • Earache
  • Inability to close (or open) jaw completely
  • Stiffness of jaw muscle or locking of jaw
    List adapted from TMJ disorders from the National Institutes of Health.

TMJ-related pain and symptoms may be caused by physical and emotional stress that leads to behaviors that put wear and tear on the area, i.e., teeth-grinding (bruxism), jaw clenching. In other cases, TMJ disorders may result from:

  • Injury to the joint
  • Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Disk erosion or misalignment
    List adapted from TMJ disorders from the Mayo Clinic.

Various non-surgical treatments exist for most TMJ disorders, if they are not severe cases. As such, a health care provider may suggest a number of options for treating a TMJ disorder, including relaxation techniques to reduce stress and tension in the muscles, avoiding hard foods and chewing gum, hot or cold compresses, and practicing good posture. Check out Stress, anxiety, and learning to cope and Number one cause of stress in the Go Ask Alice! emotional health archives for some relaxation tips.

Keep in mind that health care providers, dentists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists, or TMJ specialists can all treat TMJ disorders. So, if you think that you may have a TMJ disorder and it is affecting you, you may want to consider seeing a health care provider, who can better determine what may be going on. If you're a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Pain from TMJ disorders can really gnaw at you, but here's hoping it all locks into place,

Alice