The olive-sized joint that connects your jawbone to your skull is called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). TMJ syndrome is a set of symptoms that relate to damage, wear and tear, or unusual stress to the joint. The symptoms can include:
• Pain in and around the joint
• Noises such as clicking, popping, or snapping in the joint
• Limited ability to “open wide”
• Muscle pain and spasms where the jaw muscles attach to the bone
• Headache, neck and shoulder pain, ear or eye pain, and difficulty swallowing
The cause of TMJ syndrome is difficult to determine. The most likely causes include:
• Injury, such as a direct blow to the jaw, whiplash, or forceful stretching of the jaw during dental work
• Chronic tooth grinding, clenching, or gum chewing
• Arthritis in the joint
• Chronic muscle tension due to stress, anxiety, depression, or poor posture (usually affects the jaw muscles more than the joint)
• Teeth that do not meet when you bite
TMJ often responds well to home care, and most cases don’t require surgery. In addition to the home treatments listed here, your family doctor, dentist, or a physical therapist may be able to recommend exercises or other treatment, depending on the cause of the problem. Surgery is needed for only a few TMJ problems.
• Regularly practice progressive muscle relaxation, particularly before going to sleep.
• Stop chewing gum or tough foods at the first sign of pain or discomfort in your jaw muscles.
• Avoid biting your nails and chewing on pencils or other objects which force your jaw into an awkward position and may cause pain.
• Maintain good posture with your ear, shoulder, and hip in a straight line to prevent muscle tension.
• Good dentistry will allow your teeth to meet evenly when you bite down.
• Continue the prevention tips.
• Avoid chewing gum and foods that are hard to chew.
• Avoid opening your mouth too wide.
• Rest your jaw, keeping your teeth apart and your lips closed. (Keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth, not between your teeth.)
• Put an ice pack on the joint for 10 to 15 minutes, four times a day. Gently open and close your mouth while the ice pack is on.
• If there is no swelling, use moist heat on the jaw muscle three to four times a day. Gently open and close your mouth while the heat is on. Alternate with the cold pack treatments.
• Use aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and pain.
• If you are under a lot of stress or if you are anxious or depressed, get psychological support.
When to Call a Health Professional
• If pain is severe.
• If TMJ symptoms occur after an injury to the jaw.
• If clicking or cracking sounds in your jaw continue without pain for over two weeks, tell your doctor or dentist at your next regular visit.
• If any jaw problem or pain continues without improvement for over two weeks.
• If other mild TMJ symptoms do not improve after four weeks of home treatment.