TMJ Problems – What Are They, and What Can I Do About Them?

TMJ Problems

TMJ stands for Temporomandibular Joint, which is the hinge that connects your jaw to your skull near your ears. You may hear someone say “I have TMJ” – they probably mean “I have TMD or TMJ,” which is the disorder associated with the temporomandibular joint involving pain, numbness, or stiffness around your jaw. But resist the urge to correct your friends with this knowledge; generally, “TMJ” intimates a problem with the jaw hinge or surrounding muscles and tendons, and is often very uncomfortable or even painful.

Do I have TMJ?

Symptoms of TMJ can be similar to those experienced from tooth decay or gum disease, as these ailments can affect the jaw joint. However, there are a few telling symptoms that separate TMJ from other jaw disorders. On one or both sides of your face, you may experience:

  • Pain, discomfort, or tenderness around the jaw joint or ear, often accompanied by tension in your neck and shoulders
  • Pain or difficulty opening and closing your mouth, chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Popping, clicking, or grating sounds when you chew or open and close your mouth
  • Swelling around the jaw joint
  • Feeling as though your teeth aren’t fitting together properly when you close your mouth

Often, TMJ is accompanied by headache or neck ache, toothache, earache or tinnitus. This discomfort may stem from the jaw joint and affect the surrounding muscles as they try to overcompensate for the misalignment of the jaw.


Although there’s no overarching cause of TMJ, most dentists believe that injury to the jaw muscle or the joint itself, whether suddenly or over time, contributes most heavily to jaw pain. These types of causes include:

  • Grinding, clenching, tight facial muscles due to stress, an ill-fitting retainer, or any other
  • gradual trigger that puts pressure on the jaw joint
  • Whiplash or a hard hit to the jaw, or jaw dislocation and replacement
  • Arthritis

To diagnose TMJ, your dentist may have to take X-rays or rule out other causes like sinus infection or gum disease. In some cases, diagnosing a TMJ disorder is as simple for your dentist as putting his hands on either side of your jaw joint while you open and close your mouth; if your pain is caused by a misaligned jaw, your dentist will be able to feel the disc popping out slightly when you open your mouth. Make sure to let your dentist know if you are conscious of any grinding or clenching, or if you’ve had a recent injury to your jaw.


For mild to moderate cases of TMJ, home treatment is recommended and can provide the same relief as inpatient treatment. For the first few days after you notice jaw pain or discomfort, following these steps can prevent further irritation and pain to your face.

  • Take painkillers like Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen, which can be acquired over-the-counter and may help reduce swelling and tension in addition to relieving pain.
  • Heat, ice, repeat. Using heat or cold packs, apply with gentle pressure for 10-20 minutes. When choosing between hot or cold, go with whatever gives you the most relief.
  • Stretch or do yoga. Sometimes, relieving tension in other parts of your body can lessen the tension in your jaw. If you’re a yogi, do some gentle stretches – nothing that will jostle your neck or head – or follow a guided meditation. Massage can also provide tension-reducing effects.
  • Avoid hard foods and unnecessary impact. Maybe consider rescheduling that whitewater rafting trip. Eating soft foods and cutting tougher foods into small pieces can reduce the stress to your jaw and will prevent the need to open your mouth wide, which can incite pain.
  • Keep your teeth slightly apart, or consider wearing a retainer if you tend to grind or clench your teeth while you sleep.

If your TMJ is severe or can’t be resolved with at-home treatment, your dentist may prescribe stronger painkillers or suggest dental work. If you have missing teeth or gum disease, addressing these problems in-office may reduce the painful symptoms of TMJ.

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