The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is the hinge and sliding joint located on each side off the head, allowing for everyday oral functions such as eating, swallowing, talking, yawning, coughing and sneezing. When the joint or muscles surrounding it become inflamed or damaged from injury, overuse, parafunctional impact or other causes, a group of conditions collectively known as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD) develops.

A debilitating condition for a number of individuals, TMD not only affects oral structures, it also impacts other areas of the body as well.

Identifying and Understanding TMD Symptoms

TMD symptoms range from mild to severe and may be acute or chronic, depending on individual circumstances. Though the exact etiology of TMD has yet to be determined, several contributing factors have been identified, such as stress, bruxism, parafunctional habits, bite misalignment, arthritis and other causative agents. The following TMD symptoms are recognized as being the most common among those affected by the condition:

  • Pain/Tenderness: Typically occurring around the jaw joint and sides of the face and radiating out to other areas of the head, pain and tenderness result from strained or damaged muscle and facial tissues.
  • Limited Mouth Expansion: When muscles become tense or joint function damaged, opening the mouth beyond a certain degree may be extremely painful or impossible.
  • Locked Jaws: Locked jaws occur when the lower jaw becomes displaced or the muscles supporting the jaw joint “cramp” or seize up.
  • Joint Clicking: Noises such as clicking, grinding or popping coming from the jaw joint result from movement of the disc within the joint or the bursting of gas bubbles located in joint fluid.
  • Difficulty Chewing: Painful, inflamed jaw muscles or damage to TMJ structures often render normal chewing function difficult and painful.
  • Bite Discomfort: When proper jaw joint function is impaired due to TMD, biting the teeth together can produce discomfort. The teeth may not be meeting together in the proper areas, placing increased stress on points of contact.
  • Toothaches: Bruxism habits associated with TMD are often evidenced by toothaches. Structures supporting teeth become inflamed or bruised, creating toothache-like discomfort. Pain from the jaw can also be referred to certain areas of dentition.
  • Head/Neck Aches: Pain from inflamed, tense jaw and facial muscles and strained joint function may radiate out, reaching head and neck muscles. Frequent headaches are among the more common TMD symptoms.
  • Upper Shoulder Pain: Several muscles located in the face, jaw and neck areas originate in the upper shoulders and back. Chronic TMJ-related issues often affect upper shoulder muscles, causing tension, pain and tenderness in this part of the body.
  • Dizziness: With the jaw joint located close to the ear, inflammation from TMD has the potential to affect the ear canal and inner ear, causing dizziness in some individuals.
  • Earaches: Earaches may be caused by either pain referred from the TMJ and surrounding muscles or pressure on the ear canal due to inflammation around the jaw joint.
  • Hearing Problems: When muscles close to the ear become inflamed from TMD, the expansion in tissue can reduce the diameter of the ear canal, impeding the individual’s ability to hear properly.
  • Ringing in the Ears: Nerves in and around the ear may become affected by inflamed muscle tissue surrounding the TMJ, causing the patient to experience tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

When to Seek Treatment for TMD

TMD symptoms can pose anywhere from minor inconveniences to serious, life-altering conditions. Many cases of TMD require only palliative care and lifestyle changes, while others must be corrected with more comprehensive treatment. If you are suffering from TMD symptoms, however minor, contact your dentist for a TMJ evaluation as soon as possible.

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