If you like being able to bite, chew, speak and smile, you can thank your temporomandibular joints -- otherwise known as TMJ's or jaw joints. Humans have two TMJ's -- one in front of each ear. The TMJ connects the lower jaw bone to the skull and allows our jaws to move up and down, side to side and forward and back.
As with most things that get used a lot, the jaw joints are vulnerable to pain and dysfunction. Discomfort may be temporary or regular; if it's the latter, it could be a sign of TMJ disorder, also known as TMJ syndrome or TMD.
The causes of TMJ disorder vary. Jaw, head or neck injuries can cause TMJ disorder. So can arthritis. Stress can be a major factor. If you suffer from bruxism, that can hurt your jaws, too. TMJ syndrome also tends to affect women of childbearing age, as well as older men and women.
The most common TMJ symptoms are pain in the jaw joints, earaches and dull, chronic headaches. If you're one of the lucky ones, you may not experience any pain -- but you'll probably have problems using your jaws.
Other TMJ symptoms include:
Clicking or popping sounds in the jaw joint
A bite that feels uncomfortable or "off"
Neck, shoulder and back pain
Swelling on the side of the face
TMJ syndrome can also cause ringing in the ears, dizziness and vision problems.
When it comes to TMJ-related jaw pain, keep in mind that occasional discomfort is common and not always a cause for concern. Jaw pain can even get better without dental treatment; simple TMJ exercises may be all you need.
Recommended TMJ exercises vary, depending on the kind of TMJ symptoms you're experiencing. Here are some examples:
If your jaw falls to one side when you open your mouth ... Open and close your mouth straight 10 times in a row for three sets. If possible, watch yourself in the mirror to make sure your head's straight and that you're opening and closing your mouth straight. Repeat the three sets of 10 TMJ exercises 3-4 times a day.
If the muscles around your jaw joints are sore ... TMJ symptoms usually involve some kind of muscle pain, a result of tightening or clenching the jaw. These TMJ exercises can help keep your muscles stretched: Slowly open your mouth as wide as possible, then slowly close it. If you like, you can apply warm towels to each side of your face to help increase the blood flow to your muscles. Be sure to reheat the towels. Repeat these TMJ exercises daily until your muscles feel better.
When to Get Help
If you've tried TMJ exercises but your jaw pain or other TMJ symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, you should see your dentist or doctor.
Treatment of TMJ disorder depends on the severity of your condition, and the goal is to minimize the pain and get your jaws working properly again. Although oral surgery is an option, many dentists prefer to treat TMJ syndrome with conservative and reversible treatments first.
Non-surgical treatments of TMJ disorder include:
Wearing a mouthguard or night guard
Applying moist heat to the jaws
Eating soft foods
Jaw and neck exercises