If you're experiencing a toothache, jaw pain, ear pain, or other pain around your face, you may be struggling with a condition known as temporomandibular disorder (also known as TMD). This discomfort can be frustrating but has several potential underlying causes. We're here to walk you through how you can discern ear and jaw pain due to TMD from other sources and what you should do about it.
When Ear and Jaw Pain Indicates TMD
The joint connecting your jawbones to your skull are also known as your temporomandibular joints (TMJ). Because of this, disorders associated with this structure are called temporomandibular disorders (TMD). This joint and the related muscles give your jaw mobility, enabling vital daily functions like eating and speaking.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, these disorders are most common in women and most frequently occur in those aged 20 to 40. They can lead to discomfort around your face, including pain in your jaw and ear.
Causes of TMD may include:
- Stress that leads you to clench and overstrain your jaw muscles or TMJ
- Grinding your teeth (also known as bruxism)
- Arthritis in your TMJ
- Dislocation within your TMJ
If you’re experiencing pain in your ear or jaw or symptoms you believe may be related to TMD, it’s a good idea to check in with a professional for their diagnosis and treatment recommendations. This is especially true for TMD disorders as they can present in various ways, making them difficult to diagnose accurately.
So, who exactly should you schedule a visit with? It could be a good idea to start with your primary care provider (PCP), as they’re often most familiar with your health. Speaking with your dental professional is also an excellent option as they have specialized knowledge and training in TMD and are often familiar with your health history.
Either your medical or dental professional may refer you to a specialist for further diagnosis and treatment, such as a maxillofacial surgeon or physical therapist.
Pain associated with TMJ can either be mild or acute and can be temporary or chronic. As the presentation of the pain can vary, it can be challenging to diagnose on your own. Various other underlying concerns can lead to similar symptoms and pain, including dental issues, arthritis, and sinus problems.
With that said, TMD pain typically:
- Presents around your TMJ, face, neck, shoulders, or ear area
- Appears or worsens when you open your mouth wide, speak, or chew
- Is accompanied by swelling, face fatigue, limited mobility of your jaw, or noises when you open or close your jaw
When diagnosing the source of your pain, medical or dental professionals may:
- Collect your full medical and dental history
- Perform a physical exam, test your range of motion, and look for soreness or sounds when opening and closing your jaw
- Performing imaging studies like a panoramic X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
According to the Cleveland Clinic, your dental professional will likely recommend exploring the more conservative treatment options before more resorting to more invasive approaches. While you’re waiting to receive expert diagnosis and treatment advice, it’s best to avoid worsening your pain and seeking relief where possible for your ear and jaw pain.
Treatment options to relieve pain associated with TMD may be relieved by:
- Avoiding straining your jaw muscles by eating overly hard or chewy items in favor of soft foods
- Practicing relaxation methods to help reduce your stress levels
- Receiving dental treatment to correct associated oral health problems, like a misaligned bite.
- If you grind your teeth or have a misaligned bite, consider purchasing a splint or mouthguard to cover your teeth at night.
- Trying not to strain your jaw by performing wide or excessive jaw movements
- Applying a cold compress to the affected area for 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off
- Using over-the-counter medications to relieve swelling or pain as instructed on the packaging
Keep in mind that numerous underlying sources potentially cause pain in your ear or jaws, so it’s best to leave the diagnosis up to the pros. In the meantime, you have options at your disposal to help manage your pain and to avoid worsening it. You’ve made a great choice to educate yourself on TMD and set yourself up to manage its symptoms best.
This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.