Understanding Temporomandibular Disorder – TMD

Have you ever had ear pain, but not had an ear infection that the doctor could find? You might be having TMJ pain or Temporomandibular Joint Pain. That is the hinge that connects your jaw to the temporal bones of your skull, which are in front of your ears. The disorder is called TMD, which is Temporomandibular disorder. Sometimes the two get mixed up as one is the disorder and the other is just the pain you experience. There are over 3 million cases reported each year, that is just what is reported, as most people don’t realize they are having issues with this.

TMJ pain can come from stress clenching of the jaw, although no one really knows the real reason for the disorder. You might be unconsciously grinding and clenching your teeth, even doing this at night when you sleep. If you have had an injury to the face, head or neck, you might also be susceptible and even whiplash from a car accident could be the cause. Not as common is arthritis in the joint, but could be common in someone who has a history of arthritis.

The symptoms are usually the same, pain or tenderness in the ears, joint and jaw area and can even be felt in the shoulders and neck as well. It can be from a dull ache to a very severe pain, even causing headaches. This pain can last a few days to many years.  It can cause pain in one side of your face, or both sides. It is most common in people, ages 20-40 and is more common in women than men, although no one really knows the cause.  Your jaw may become stuck or locked in the open mouth position when you chew. You might hear popping or clicking sounds as well. Swelling might occasionally happen in the lower half of your face. As crazy as it sounds, you might also have ringing of the ears, dizziness and upper shoulder pain.

TMD is usually self -diagnosed although it is best to get a check-up with your dentist. They will ask about your health history and perform a physical exam. They will check for clicking, popping and see if your jaw is locking when you open and close your mouth. They will check the alignment of your bite and make sure there are not any problems with your facial muscles. It may be necessary to take X-rays of the full face, an MRI or CT to further diagnose the disease. If the dentist sees is necessary, they might refer you to an oral surgeon for more advanced care or an orthodontist to ensure your overall health needs are taken care of.

There are several things you can do at home to help relieve the pain and tenderness. You can take Nsaids, or anti-inflammatory medications to reduce the swelling, or apply a cold pack for a few minutes to the side of your face and then apply a warm cloth for about 5 minutes. This can be done daily as needed. One thing that people don’t think about is resting their chin in their hands and practicing good posture when sitting. Eating soft foods when you are experiencing pain is a good idea as well. A good tip is to learn and practice good stress relieving techniques such as prayer, meditation or breathing techniques. Physical therapy or massages may be helpful as well.

Although in more extreme cases, you might need oral surgery, it is usually not necessary and this is something that you can help relieve the pain and discomfort at home. Make sure to get regular exams with your dentist and talk to them about any issues you have with your jaw joint pain. You too may be one of the over 3 million people who suffer from TMD.

Dr. David Redford is a dentist and dental health blogger for University Dental Arts in Denver, CO

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