TMJ Dysfunction: What It Means for Your Mouth

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Temporomandibular joint dysfunction, also known as TMJ dysfunction, is a painful and debilitating disorder that can affect your quality of life. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that as many as 10 million Americans have this disorder. What exactly is this condition and can it be treated?

What is TMJ?

TMJ disorder is actually a number of disorders that causes pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint – the most constantly used joint in the body. Generally, symptoms are temporary and require little or no treatment. For some, it may involve extensive therapy from a dentist or perhaps a referral to a specialist like an oral maxillofacial surgeon. Most treatment is palliative, meaning the goal is to relieve pain. Research has not identified a definitive therapy treatment that involves permanent changes in the bite or joint. Although jaw pain is a symptom, the American Dental Association recommends consulting with your doctor or dentist to determine if another medical or dental issues is causing the pain.

Anatomy of TMJ

The temporomandibular joint is located in front of the ears and connects the lower jaw (also known as the mandible) to the skull. The unique action of this hinged and gliding joint allows up and down and side to side movement. This joint enables us to talk, chew and yawn. The round upper portion of the lower jaw, called the condyle, rests and moves in a concavity on the skull. In between these two areas, a disc made of cartilage acts as a cushion when the mouth opens and closes.

This action makes the TMJ different from other load-bearing joints in the body, because multiple muscles are activated in each movement. As a result, treating TMJ dysfunction is challenging to the medical professional and can be frustrating for the patient.

Causes of Dysfunction

The causes of TMJ disorder are complex and diversified. It may require various tests to diagnose and treatment can range from simple – pain relief and anti-inflammatory measures – to complicated cases that require surgery. Here are some causes:

  • Arthritis that develops from injury or teeth grinding
  • Dislocation of the joint
  • Perforation or hole in the disc from injury or autoimmune disease

Teeth grinding, or bruxism, can cause pain in and around the joint area as well as the muscles that control its action. This can also cause limited opening – especially in the morning – and headaches. Emotional stress may contribute to this habit. Behavior modification and wearing a protective appliance or guard while sleeping may help lessen bruxism and its negative effects on the teeth and jaw.


Treatment options range from self-care to relieving pain to seeking a physician or dentist's advice. A referral to an oral maxillofacial surgeon is recommended for extreme cases, especially when injury or trauma to the joint is suspected.

Generally home remedies are successful and most people find relief in a few days. They include over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine, ice packs, a soft diet and avoiding extreme movements of the jaw. Since the mechanism of chewing is important for plaque control, while on the soft diet, the use of an anti-cavity toothpaste is recommended.

If symptoms from TMJ dysfunction don't resolve, you should visit your dentist for an evaluation. A thorough exam can pinpoint the cause and the remedies that should be instituted based on the diagnosis. Treatments may include short-term prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, bite splints or night guards, and even help with stress management.

If non-surgical approaches are not successful or if joint damage is suspected, surgery may be indicated. It can be done arthroscopically like other joints in the body or through conventional open surgery. Treatment that involves permanent changes to the joint or mouth should be considered carefully.

Having a brilliant smile involves many factors, from good oral hygiene to healthy eating. Having a normal TMJ is part of the equation and visiting your dentist regularly will help recognize and treat problems early and keep your smile and quality of life in tip-top shape!