Here's Looking at Your TMJ

Here’s Looking at Your TMJ!

The pain started during her favorite movie–Casablanca. She needed to relax, so with a bowl of popcorn, she settled in with the characters at Rick’s Café Américain. While immersed in the 1941 lives of expats, refugees, Vichy French, Nazi scoundrels, and resistance heroes, she noticed her jaw ached. Soon a sharper pain began radiating up to her ear on one side. By the time Rick put his beloved Ilsa on that plane to Lisbon, the jaw joint seemed to click hard, almost locking. She found it difficult to open her mouth very far. How could a little popcorn and a favorite movie cause all that? She had heard about TMJ. Was it that?

Although there isn’t a standard definition for TMJD, which stands for temporomandibular joint disorder, at first glance our Casablanca-loving popcorn muncher appears to be one of over 10 million Americans who suffer from TMJ Disorder. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves with an Internet diagnosis. Let’s discuss what the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is, what can cause problems with the TMJ, symptoms of TMJ Disorders, and how we can alleviate these symptoms.

Of All The Temporomandibular Joints In All The World…

Temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are true engineering marvels. You’ve got two, one on each side of your head. Not only do these joints connect your lower jaw to the bones at the side of the skull, they also act as flexible sliding hinges. Place your fingers on both sides of your head about an inch in front of the bobble of your ears. Move your lower jaw up and down and side to side. Those simple actions require muscle, ligaments, the rounded ends of the lower jaw called condyles, and way-cool elastic cartilage shock absorbers called articular discs to work together.

TMJ Disorder Causes–As Time Goes By

It should be no surprise that the older this engineering marvel gets, the more likely some parts will go awry. After all, it’s the most used joint in the body. Although TMJ disorders can occur at any age, the risk increases dramatically between the ages of 20 and 40. According to Tooth Wisdom, age-related factors that affect how well the temporomandibular joints work include:

  • Arthritis, especially osteoarthritis which affects your body’s joints.
  • Dental changes. As you age, you are more likely to have dental work, such as tooth replacement, crowns, dentures, etc. People’s teeth also wear down as they age, which can change their bite and chewing patterns.
  • Medical conditions that cause pain and muscle spasms in the head, neck, and jaw.

Other Causes Of TMJD–Round Up The Usual Suspects

Trauma Can Lead To TMJ Disorder

  • Bruxism. Teeth grinding can often result in muscle spasms, specifically the muscles that control the temporomandibular joint. People who grind their teeth usually do so when sleeping. Jaw clenching often accompanies bruxism. Over time, this stresses the temporomandibular joint and tooth height and alignment. Inflammation and pain follow.
  • An impact to the jaw. Any accident, punch, break, or dislocation of the TMJ can cause damage to the shock-absorbing disc that is integral to the working of the jaw’s movement. Pain in the TMJ can be brought on by dental work whereby the joint is stretched open for extended periods of time. Massage and heat application after the dental procedure can be helpful.

The Fundamental Things Apply—Symptoms And Women

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, TMJ disorders affect 5 to 12 percent of the population at any given time. Extensive research suggests that the disorder is 1.5 to 2 times more prevalent among women, who comprise 80% of the patients who seek treatment. For women, TMJ pain often occurs after puberty and peaks in the reproductive years, with the highest prevalence occurring in women aged 20-40. And 85% of patients with TMJ disorders also experience other painful conditions. To name a few, these include chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia. Because women are exclusively or over-represented in these as well as TMJD, researchers are looking for common threads like hormones that underpin these conditions.

The Mayo Clinic lists the following as the most common symptoms of TMJ disorders:

  • Pain or tenderness of your jaw
  • Pain in one or both of the temporomandibular joints
  • Aching pain in and around your ear
  • Difficulty chewing or pain while chewing
  • Aching facial pain
  • Locking of the joint, making it difficult to open or close your mouth

The good news is that if you experience any or some of these symptoms, know that the pain is usually temporary.

How We Treat TMJ Disorders

We believe in taking a conservative approach to treating the pain and discomfort associated with TMJ disorder. However, pain isn’t fun. Make an appointment to see one of our dentists. In the meantime, we recommend soft foods, ice packs, and an over-the-counter pain medicine such as Tylenol or Advil. Avoid gum and crocodile yawns.

  1. Initial Evaluation. We will look at your jaw to see if your pain is coming from the bones, the joint, the muscles, the teeth, or any combination of the four.
  2. Jaw splint. If we determined you are suffering symptoms of TMJ disorder, we may use a splint for your jaw. This is really a type of mouth guard that stabilizes your jaw and reduces your discomfort.
  3. Aqualizer. If you have a more acute case, we may recommend wearing a device called an Aqualizer for one to two weeks. This is a fluid filled pouch–similar to a tiny waterbed that fits inside your mouth. The Aqualizer helps stabilize your jaw like the splint. This can help decrease the pain.
  4. Medication. We may prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug or muscle relaxant to help decrease inflammation or relax the muscles around the jaw.
  5. Heat therapy. Sometimes we use a laser to focus heat directly onto the region of the jaw muscle or joint. This increases blood flow to ease pain and tension.

I Think This Is The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship

If you are suffering from jaw pain, contact us to set up an appointment. We will create a treatment plan for TMJ disorder that can help reduce the pain, so you can get back to living your life. We’ll get you back to your favorite activities and films quicker than you can say “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Author Info

Dr. Connor Hollowwa

Dr. Connor Hollowwa is an Albuquerque native. He graduated from the Albuquerque Academy and went on to receive a BA from Rice University. His Doctorate of Dental Surgery is from Creighton University School of Dentistry. Since 2014 Dr. Hollowwa has practiced at the state-of-the-art Isleta Health Center’s Dental Clinic, providing modern dental care for the members of the Pueblo of Isleta. In his free time he enjoys playing the piano, fly-fishing, golfing, and skiing.

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