If "snap," "crackle" and "pop" aren't coming from your cereal, they may be from your temporomandibular joint (TMJ). TMJ complications affect over 10 million people, according to the National Institute of Craniofacial Research (NICR), and it's a greater issue for women than men. Although the symptoms may be alarming, you can determine whether your clicking jaw is just a temporary annoyance or a sign of a more advanced temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD).
The temporomandibular joint can move side to side, as well as backwards and forwards, making it one of the most complex joints in your body. Connecting your lower jaw to the temporal bones at the side of the face, as explained in the Merck Manual, the joint allows you the range of motion needed to speak, yawn, and chew food. Facial muscles attached to this joint control these movements, while a soft cartilage disc within the joint socket absorbs massive amounts of pressure so no single motion does any damage.
Trauma, dislocation or a displaced disc can all contribute to an audible jaw disorder, but the exact cause of TMD is often unknown. Nonetheless, clenching and grinding can cause pain and tightness in the facial muscles – especially if the teeth are not in alignment – whereas various types of arthritis can affect the joint itself. Researchers believe women may be more susceptible to TMD, in part because the collagen holding the disc in the socket is anatomically different in women. In addition, female hormones might affect the joint.
The most common symptom of TMD is pain in the joint itself or in the chewing muscles attached to it. Other signs include locking of the jaw or restricted movement, changes in the way your teeth come together, and recurring headaches. A painful grinding or popping in your joint can be a warning, of course, but a clicking sound in your jaw – or limited movement without pain – isn't always an indication of a TMJ problem, nor does it require treatment.
Most people experience mild symptoms that resolve spontaneously. For others, the pain can be persistent and debilitating. If you experience TMD symptoms, consult your dentist as soon as possible.
Your dentist will consider the following signs when taking a detailed dental and medical history. He or she will ask for specifics regarding your symptoms, and perform a careful examination that includes observing the movement of your jaw and feeling for tightness or tenderness in the facial muscles. A panoramic X-ray can also help reveal or rule out a serious joint issue. If more extensive details are required, however, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a cat scan (CT) may be necessary. Your dentist is ultimately looking to exclude other causes of discomfort before making a diagnosis.
The NICR strongly recommends conservative, non-surgical treatments for TMD. Custom bite plates or splints, fabricated to stabilize your bite, are one of the most common remedies. Since most cases of TMD are temporary in nature, taking the following steps to relieve discomfort may be all that's necessary:
● Eat soft foods.
● Alternate between applying ice and moist heat to your joint.
● Avoid excessive jaw movements – wide yawning, chewing gum or taking large bites of tall sandwiches.
● Practise stress-reducing techniques.
● Follow gentle stretching exercises, as suggested by your dentist or physical therapist.
● Consult your dentist or doctor for pain-relieving medication.
Practise good oral hygiene and visit your dentist regularly for cleaning. Keep in mind that not all jaw pain comes from overextension; you can also keep your TM joint healthy by avoiding excessive jaw movements and refraining from biting down on hard objects. If you clench or grind your teeth at night, wearing a mouthguard while you sleep can also help prevent symptoms of TMD.
And remember, if you experience a clicking jaw without pain, it's probably not TMD. However, it's still a good idea to mention your noisy jaw at your next dental check-up.