Nearly everyone has experienced facial pain at some point. It is very possible that this pain originates in the temporomandibular joint (abbreviated TMJ). These joints are located directly in front of the ear, connecting the mandible (lower jaw) with the maxilla (upper jaw). They work with a sliding motion, utilizing what are known as "ball and socket" joints. They are used every time you speak, chew, swallow, or yawn. The TMJs are often flexed more times in a day than any other joint in your body.
When it does not function properly, the TMJ can cause a variety of symptoms. More than 15 percent of all Americans suffer from clicking or popping noises in the jaw, frequent headaches, and tenderness around the jaw. Other common signs of TMJ problems include facial fatigue, hearing problems, ringing in the ears, and dizziness. One or both joints may be affected.
Your dentist will perform a comprehensive examination, usually including x-rays to determine the exact cause of your pain. Several gentle, non-surgical treatments are available. Some of the most common include:
- Muscle relaxers – Relieving muscular tension can reduce the strain on the joint.
- Mouth protectors – Small, custom made appliances can prevent clenching and grinding, as well as holding the jaw in optimal position.
- Exercises – Gently exercising the joint and facial muscles can reduce the severity of muscular spasms.
- Root canal therapy – In some cases, the pain may originate from an infection in your tooth. Antibiotics may also be prescribed.
- Anti-inflammatory medications – If the pain is resulting from an inflammatory condition such as arthritis, prescription medications may bring relief.
- Lifestyle changes – Sometimes simple alterations in your habits, such as eating softer foods and avoiding excess stress, can bring a great deal of relief.
There are many possible causes of TMJ pain, making diagnosis particularly challenging. Some of the most common triggers for this condition include:
- Stress induced clenching of jaws
- Periodontal disease
- Tooth grinding (Bruxism)
- Trauma to the face, including injury or a past surgery
- Allergies, infections, and other sinus problems
- Chronic inflammation associated with diseases such as arthritis
- Toothache, misalignment, root canal infection, and other dental problems