The TMJ or Temporo-Mandibular Joint is an anatomical joint where the mandible (the lower jaw) joins the temporal bone of the skull, immediately in front of the ear on each side of your head. A small disk of cartilage separates the bones, much like in the knee joint, so that the mandible may slide easily. Each time you chew, talk, or swallow your mandible moves on the disk. Since you swallow an average of three times per minute and hundreds of times per day, the TMJ is one of the most frequently used joints of the body and also one of the most complex.
What is TMJ and TMJ Treatment?
Many people misuse the term “TMJ” to describe an ailment or pain in the area. TMJ actually refers to the anatomical name of the joint, whereas the diagnostic term for symptoms associated with TMJ disorder is TMD (Temporo-Mandibular Joint Dysfunction).
- Patients with TMD may experience symptoms, such as:
- Jaw pain, clicking, popping, or locking
- Facial pain
- Frequent headaches
- Neck or shoulder pain
- Pain or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
- Inability to open the mouth very wide
- An uncomfortable “bite”
In most patients, pain associated with the TMJ results when the cartilage disc becomes displaced. Several causes are associated with TMD. Major and minor trauma to the jaw can contribute to TMJ problems. If you habitually clench or grind your teeth, you can wear the cartilage lining of the joint and develop TMD as the result. Many people unknowingly grind their teeth and therefore don’t associate symptoms of TMD, such as frequent headaches, with dentistry.
Other factors that may contribute to TMD include chewing gum daily, stress and psychological factors, mal-positioned jaws, and arthritis. Depending on the cause and extent of damage, TMD can worsen if left untreated.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Proper diagnosis of TMJ dysfunction begins with a detailed history and physical, including a careful assessment of the occlusion (bite), jaw joints, and associated muscles. If diagnosed early, you may be able to self-remedy the disorder by eating soft foods, avoiding chewing gum, and relaxing the muscles with moist heat (1/2 hour twice daily). Other early treatment methods may include relaxation techniques, stress reduction, or medications prescribed by your doctor.
In many cases, Dr. Harden can remedy TMJ dysfunction with a custom-designed occlusal splint. The splint will prevent wear and tear on the joint and also alleviate symptoms associated with clenching and grinding. Orthodontic treatment or bite building may prove helpful, as well. For advanced cases, Dr. Harden may recommend surgery under the care of a specialist.
In the last few years, research has shown that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) medications such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and Celexa may cause or elevate the symptoms of clenching and grinding. This side effect is relatively unknown to physicians, although dentists are increasingly aware of the problem. If your jaw pain/headache symptoms began a few weeks to a month after taking SSRI medications, alert your physician, as the symptoms could be related to the drug.