Get a Better Understanding of TMJ Syndrome
Have you ever had jaw pain?
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably experienced this at some point. This can be incredibly debilitating given that we use our jaw for so many daily activities including eating, talking, laughing and yawning. In this article we go through the key causes of jaw pain and the most common risk factors. We share key treatment strategies as well as the role of physiotherapy in resolving jaw pain…plus we give a practical exercise you can do to relieve jaw pain today!
What Causes Jaw Pain?
The temporomandibular joint, or the TMJ, is the joint that connects your jaw to your skull, allowing you to open and close your mouth. It can be injured just like any other joint in your body. Direct trauma, grinding or clenching teeth and even arthritis can all cause pain at the TMJ. As well, a cartilage disc sits within the joint to help decrease friction (much like in the knee joint), and in some people, this disk can become thinned or even move out of place, leading to pain and dysfunction. In some cases, the neck or head may be the cause of jaw pain. Because of the way many of the jaw muscles connect to these areas, injuries like whiplash or concussion can be associated with TMJ pain.
Am I at Risk?
The cause of TMJ dysfunction is sometimes unclear. However, several risk factors have been identified:
- Female sex, especially those between 20-40 years
- Poor posture (neck and head position in turn affects the jaw)
- Stress or anxiety (often leads to clenching and teeth grinding)
- Poorly positioned teeth (what is called “malocclusion”)
- Orthodontic braces
- Inflammatory disorders such as arthritis
- Excessive gum chewing
How do I Know if I Have True TMJ Dysfunction?
Symptoms are variable, but will usually involve either acute (short-term) or chronic (longer-term) pain or discomfort on one or both sides of the jaw or face. Other common symptoms may include:
- Pain/discomfort in the teeth, neck or shoulders, and may even include earaches and headaches at times (may be one side or both), especially when chewing
- Locking or sticking of the jaw in the open or closed position
- Clicking or popping with opening or closing (may or may not be associated with pain)
- Fatigued jaw muscles
- Hearing problems or ringing in the ears
Who Should I Go See for Treatment?
As a rule of thumb, you should get checked out if you have trouble opening or closing your jaw, and/or if you have persistent pain. Either your family doctor, dentist, or physiotherapist should be able to determine if you need to see a TMJ specialist (this person may be a specialized physiotherapist, a prosthodontist, or an ear, nose, and throat/ENT doctor). For some patients who have long-standing pain, it can also be helpful to visit a pain clinic.
In order to rule out other conditions such as dental or sinus problems, gum disease etc., a thorough assessment must be completed. Imaging (X-ray, CT, or MRI) may be needed to confirm a diagnosis and identify if the TMJ disc is out of place.
What Will Treatment Look Like?
In general, TMJ pain can be managed conservatively with help and suggestions from your healthcare team. Your first step is to rule out anything sinister and to figure out the root cause of your pain. It may be that you need dental work, a night splint to prevent grinding, or a reduction in your daily stress and anxiety. Your doctor or pharmacist may suggest some over-the-counter medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen to help with any pain and swelling.
A physiotherapist can show you exercises and stretches to help decrease pain and allow better quality movement of your jaw. In rare and severe cases, a doctor may recommend injections or even surgery.
Whatever the cause may be, there here a few suggestions to help ease and mitigate pain at home:
- Practice good posture and ergonomics: your physiotherapist can help with this—no resting your chin on your hand!
- Avoid clenching your jaw and maintain a small space between your teeth: set a timer on your phone for every half hour if you need to remind yourself to relax. Relaxation techniques and meditation can also be effective.
- Ice or heat: be gentle around the face—10 minutes at a time of either warm or cold in the painful area is plenty.
- Soft foods and small, bite-sized pieces.
- Avoid chewing gum.
Practical Exercise: One practical exercise you can start doing right away to relax your jaw muscle is letting your tongue rest on the roof of your mouth. This will help to relax your jaw muscles and keep your jaw joint in a more relaxed position. Try it now to see how it feels!
Are you experiencing jaw pain? Feel free to give us a call to see what the best approach would be for you. Book an appointment with one of Innovation Physical Therapy’s experienced physiotherapists by calling one of our 6 clinics located throughout Edmonton & Sherwood Park including Riverbend, Meadowlark, Belvedere, Namao, Sherwood Park or our newest clinic in West Henday.