What is TMJ?

Dear Alice,

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

Dear Reader,

Open wide and say ahhh… okay, maybe not. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) refers to the joint where the lower jaw (mandible) meets the temporal bone of the skull. The TMJ is used to chew, talk, or yawn. Talk about working overtime! Although TMJ refers to a part of the body, TMJ can often also refer to disorders or dysfunction that affect the joint and surrounding muscles. A number of health care providers can work with patients to treat TMJ (more on this in a bit). According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, over 10 million Americans are affected by TMJ disorders, whose symptoms may include:

  • Pain or tenderness in jaw, face, or neck
  • Discomfort while chewing or biting
  • Painful clicking/grating noise when opening and closing your mouth
  • Having aching facial pain
  • Experiencing an earache or a headache
  • Inability to close (or open) jaw completely
  • Stiffness of jaw muscle or locking of the joint

List adapted from TMJ disorders from Mayo Clinic.

In many cases, the exact cause of TMJ disorders or dysfunction is relatively unclear. TMJ-related pain and symptoms may be caused by physical and emotional stress that leads to behaviors that can put wear and tear on the area, such as teeth-grinding (bruxism) and jaw clenching. In other cases, painful TMJ disorders may result from:

  • Injury to the joint
  • Osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Disk erosion or misalignment

List adapted from TMJ disorders from Mayo Clinic.

Various non-surgical treatments exist for most non-severe TMJ disorders. As such, a health care provider may suggest several options for treating a TMJ disorder, such as avoiding hard foods and chewing gum, using a night guard or bite plate, hot or cold compresses, practicing good posture, or utilizing relaxation techniques to reduce stress and control jaw tension. For some relaxation tips, you may find the Q&A Stress, anxiety, and learning to cope in the Go Ask Alice! Emotional Health archives to be helpful.

Additionally, if over-the-counter medication doesn’t help alleviate the pain, a medical provider may prescribe pain relievers, muscle relaxants, or other medications to help with the discomfort. In rare and severe cases, a health care provider may suggest surgery, such as an arthrocentesis or TMJ arthroscopy, or an injection of either corticosteroid or botulinum toxin type A.

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’s affecting you, you may want to consider seeing a health care provider who can better determine what may be going on.

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

Last updated Feb 26, 2021
Originally published Mar 15, 1996

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