TMD, then, describes a group of conditions characterized by pain and dysfunction of the TMJ and/or the muscles surrounding it. It’s not always so easy to figure out exactly what’s causing these symptoms, but the good news is that most TMD cases resolve themselves with the help of conservative remedies that you can try at home. In fact, it’s important to exhaust all such reversible remedies before moving on to anything irreversible, such as bridgework or surgery.
The two TMJs that connect your lower jaw, the mandible, to the temporal bone of the skull on either side, are actually very complex joints that allow movement in three dimensions. The lower jaw and temporal bone fit together as a ball and socket, with a cushioning disk in between. Large pairs of muscles in the cheeks and temples move the lower jaw. Any of these parts — the disk, the muscles or the joint itself — can become the source of a TMD problem. If you are in pain, or are having difficulty opening or closing your jaw, a thorough examination can help pinpoint the problem area; then an appropriate remedy can be recommended.
Causes of TMD
Signs and Symptoms of TMD
Clicking Sounds — Some people with TMD hear a clicking, popping or grating sound coming from the TMJ when opening or closing the mouth. This is usually caused by a shifting of the disk inside the joint. Someone standing next to you might even be able to hear it. Clicking by itself is actually not a significant symptom because one third of all people have jaw joints that click, studies show. However, if the clicking is accompanied by pain or limited jaw function — the jaw getting “stuck” in an open or closed position, for example — this would indicate TMD.
Muscle Pain — This can be felt in the cheeks (masseter muscles) and temples (temporalis muscles), where the two big pairs of jaw-closing muscles are located. If you feel soreness and stiffness upon waking up in the morning, it’s often related to habits such as clenching and/or grinding the teeth at night. If you have this type of nocturnal habit, a custom-made nightguard should be very helpful in decreasing the force applied to your teeth, which will in turn allow your muscles to relax and relieve pressure on your jaw joints. Other self-care remedies are discussed below (please see Relieving the Pain).
Joint Pain — Pain that’s actually coming from one or both jaw joints technically would be described as arthritis (“arth” – joint; “itis” – inflammation) of the TMJ. Radiographs (x-ray pictures) show that some people have arthritic-looking TMJs but no symptoms of pain or dysfunction; others have significant symptoms of pain and dysfunction but their joints look normal on radiographs. There is no cure for arthritis anywhere in the body, but medication can sometimes help relieve arthritic symptoms.