A woman in dentist chair who is suffering from TMJ

For years, TMJ was one of those scary acronyms that you rarely heard – but it was scary because, when you did hear it, it was usually in reference to someone having severe jaw pain. And whatever it was, you wanted nothing to do with it.

But what is TMJ? How does it happen? What is the result of TMJ? And can you fix it? Let’s look at these questions and find out.

What is TMJ?

Despite what you heard growing up, TMJ is not actually a jaw disorder. Nope, TMJ is an acronym for the temporomandibular joint – which connects your lower jaw to your skull. Located directly in front of your ear, the TMJ includes a complex grouping of blood vessels, bones and muscles, all of which controls ALL mobility of the mouth. So, whenever you chew or speak, you use your TMJ.

However, this joint and the muscles surrounding it can experience dysfunction. When this occurs, it is actually referred to as TMD – temporomandibular joint disorder. But often TMD and TMJ get used interchangeably – or people outside the dentistry profession simply use TMJ instead. So, it’s not surprising if you’ve always heard “TMJ” instead of “TMD.”

What happens when you experience TMD is that the joint – which is perhaps your body’s most intricate – becomes inflamed, irritated, or even misaligned. This outcome can be acute (sudden) or chronic (develop over time) and can create pain and discomfort ranging from mild to severe. If you do experience TMD, you should have a dental professional assess the situation as soon as possible, as, left untreated, TMD can lead to chronic pain, as well as long term conditions such as sleep apnea and even depression and anxiety from dealing with the constant pain and discomfort.

How does TMJ/TMD happen?

Several factors may contribute to TMJ disorders. Some you may be doing without even knowing including grinding teeth or clenching jaw muscles, which you may do subconsciously or in your sleep. Other chronic issues may stem from arthritis.

Often TMJ problems stem from injury, including dislocation, as getting hit in the jaw can cause an immediate misalignment. The good news is that a medical professional can easily reset the TMJ and help you avoid long term problems. However, if you ignore the issue, you could be setting yourself up for years of complications.

Meanwhile, there are several other treatments to help you or your loved one recover from TMJ disorders, whether it is an acute or chronic concern.

How do you know if you have TMJ problems?

Typically, those who experience TMJ problems do so between their 20s and 40s – and it occurs more often in women than men. Obviously, acute injury can happen any time, but if you start to notice any of these symptoms over time, then you should notify your dentist:

  • Clicking, popping, or even grating sounds when you open/close your mouth
  • Headache and earache
  • Difficulty chewing or biting
  • Locked jaw
  • Swelling of the face
  • Tender or sore facial areas neighboring the jaw
  • Changes in jaw alignment – such as your teeth not fitting together properly

If you suspect you have TMJ disorder, your dental professional will conduct a physical exam and possibly order imaging, including X-rays, Cone beam computed tomography (CBCT), or even MRI – though in most cases a simple exam and discussion will help your dentist make a diagnosis. (CBCT allows your dentist to take thousands of images of your teeth, jaws, and even sinuses that they then use to construct a 3-D representation of your TMJ structure.)

How do you fix TMJ problems?

First off, there is no need to panic. Most TMJ concerns can be solved without resorting to surgery (which is a last-ditch option). In fact, conservative treatments, including hot and cold packs, splints/guards, and a course of medication (including anti-inflammatories and prescription muscle relaxers) often resolve the issue.

There are also other treatments available, such as ultrasound and trigger point injections to help ease pain.

Should these approaches fail to address your TMJ concern, surgery may be an option. And there are three types of corrective surgery, including arthrocentesis – which is a minor procedure that can be performed in office under local anesthesia.

The other two procedures are arthroscopy and open-joint surgery, which are both more invasive and require general anesthesia. However, you and your dental professionals will work through your situation and arrive at the best option for your health.

What to do if you're experiencing TMJ symptoms

If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing TMJ problems, please contact a dental professional and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. If you have suffered an acute injury, such as dislocation, it is an emergency, and you (or a loved one) should be seen by a provider immediately. If it occurs after regular business hours, call your dentist’s emergency line. Do not put it off or wait till regular business hours resume. 

The team of professionals at BGW Dental Group can diagnose TMJ disorder and determine an appropriate treatment to restore the joint’s functionality. As with most dentists, we prefer to begin with a more conservative method, such as TMJ therapy procedures. If you display any of the specified symptoms below, contact us at 678-582-8099 and let us get you feeling your best and ready to smile again.