Every bone in the human body is connected to another bone by a joint or another type of connection. The temporomandibular joint connects your lower jaw to your upper jaw. It’s commonly referred to as the TMJ, but you probably know that term better when it’s associated with TMJ pain.

The body is a complex system of pieces and parts, but the old childhood song is fairly accurate. The ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, and so on. It’s not the most scientific way to describe the body and how it works, but it gets the point across.

TMJ Pain and Associated Conditions

Although it doesn’t sound like it would be very debilitating, TMJ pain can be more than just an inconvenience. Not only can it prove agonizing, but it can also interfere with your everyday quality of life.

TMJ discomfort can interrupt sleep and make eating a healthy diet uncomfortable. Even worse, TMJ pain can radiate to other parts of your body, causing severe headaches, muscle spasms in your neck and shoulders, and even sinus pain.

TMJ and tinnitus

While generally considered a side effect of hearing loss, in some cases, TMJ dysfunction can result in tinnitus.

TMJ pain in the ear

In some cases, the muscle spasms caused by problems with the TMJ can result in pain in one or both ears.

TMJ headaches

Pain from TMJ disorder can radiate and cause severe headaches, even migraines.

TMJ dry eyes

While TMJ disorder doesn’t cause dry eyes, there are several disorders that cause both TMJ pain and dry eyes. Both Sjogren’s Syndrome and Fibromyalgia list complaints as common signs and symptoms of both conditions.

Is TMJ Serious?

While not considered a life-threatening medical issue, TMJ pain can become serious pain for many individuals.

When something happens to the joint that connects those two jaw bones (the mandible and the maxilla), you’re going to experience pain that might range from minor to so serious you can’t open or close your mouth.

Before your TMJ pain becomes severe, it’s time to understand what it means, what might be behind it, and how you can seek relief from the pain it brings.

It’s no fun to deal with pain in your jaw, considering you use your jaw all day long to eat and speak.

What Is TMJ Pain: Signs and Symptoms

Woman clutching her aching jaw from TMJ pain

Image CC0, by katemangostar, via Freepik

TMJ pain can come and go, or it can stick around and make life very uncomfortable. Many factors cause discomfort in this joint, and it might not always be the same pain that someone else with the same issue faces.

There are, however, several causes and symptoms that are more common than others when it pertains to TMJ discomfort and your health.

If you’re living with pain in or around your jaw, you might ask yourself if it’s related to the TMJ. Some signs and symptoms might point to a positive answer that your problem is related to this joint.

  • Pain in the jaw
  • Tender jaw
  • Pain around the ear
  • Painful chewing
  • Facial aches and pains
  • Difficulty opening or closing your mouth

It’s not uncommonly to hear a clicking sound when you open or close your jaw. However, as long as there’s no pain along with the clicking noise, you shouldn’t worry about seeking treatment for TMJ problems. The clicking is natural, and it might happen to anyone on occasion.

What Does TMJ Stand for in Medical Terms?

Diagram of the temporomandibular joint anatomy - TMJ pain

Image CC 3.0 by OpenStax College, via Wikimedia Commons

Your TMJ — or temporomandibular joint — works like a hinge that slides when you open your mouth.

Imagine it works a lot like the hinges on the doors in your home. When you open the door, the hinges have to slide into a certain position to help the door open correctly.

But, if something happens to one of the hinges, the door may not open properly. In fact, it may not open at all.

Your jaw bones and joint work the same way.

Your TMJ is a joint covered by cartilage. A small disk separates the bones and helps to eliminate shock while providing a seamless opening and closing movement.

All of these parts work together. But, the following causes may interfere with its mechanical function.

  • The disk erodes
  • The disk is no longer aligned
  • Arthritis causes damage to the cartilage
  • An accident or other trauma causes damage to the joint

Sometimes, however, you won’t be able to trace a clear reason for your TMJ pain.

It can happen because of any small trauma or situation, and it’s not always obvious what happened to cause your pain and discomfort.

Infographic breaking down statistics for those who suffer TMJ pain

Image CC 2.0, by Coy Rosenthal, via Flickr

7 Ways to Lessen TMJ Pain

If you’re living with TMJ pain, you must understand you don’t need to continue to live this way. There are many ways you can lessen the pain and treat it if it’s serious enough.

If your symptoms are minor, you can treat the issue on your own without worrying about making an appointment with your doctor.

If you have minor pain in your jaw, you can use any of the following methods to lessen the pain before making the decision to see your medical professional.

Woman taking TMJ pain relief medication

Image CC0 by freepik

Use pain relievers

If your jaw pain is minor, you can pick up over-the-counter medications that help relieve your pain. The key is to look for medications that work as anti-inflammatory agents.

Ibuprofen is the best option when you have jaw or facial pain. This type of TMJ pain relief medication relieves the pain you feel and reduces swelling and inflammation.

Woman bundled up with hot drink and heating pad helping with TMJ pain

Image CC0 via pxhere

Use moist heat

One excellent TMJ home treatment is to use heat. To help relieve the pain associated with TMJ, try using a heat pack.

If you don’t have a heat pack, you can warm a bottle of water and wrap it with a moist towel. The combination of heat and moisture can help relieve some of the pain you’re feeling. Many people finding it particularly helpful when trying to sleep with TMJ pain.

Bowl of pumpkin soup. Switching to soft foods for a few days can alleviate TMJ pain.

Image CC0, by Couleur, via Pixabay

Stick with a soft diet

If your pain is persistent, try eating nothing but soft foods for a day or two until the pain is gone. You shouldn’t have to live with this as a complete lifestyle change, but it may reduce your TMJ stress and pressure. The pain in your jaw may stop if you give it time to rest.

Chewing hard foods makes your jaw work harder. Ice cream, soups, soft potatoes, and other soft foods allow your jaw to rest, so it heals faster. It’s a simple solution for TMJ pain treatment at home.

Woman sleeping on a flattened pillow. to help with TMJ pain

Image CC0,, by Claudio_Scott, via Pixabay

Change your position while sleeping

Sometimes your jaw pain is related to your posture and the pressure on your jaw. If your pain is minor and you’re looking for a way to minimize the pain, you can try sleeping on your side to help alleviate any pain you might feel.

Be sure you’re placing a support pillow between your neck and your shoulder to help relieve the stress on your jaw. It can help you sleep better, which can also make you feel better.

Woman receiving TMJ pain massage

Image CC0, by KaiMiano, via Pixabay

TMJ massage

You can use TMJ massage therapy to help relieve the pain in your jaw. You’ll find this helpful for any pain that radiates to your neck and shoulders too. It can even help relieve a TMJ migraine.

The key is to use very gentle, circular motions when you massage your jaw. You want to use two fingers on each side, but you don’t want to apply too much pressure. Use just enough, so it’s firm, but not hard enough to cause additional pain.

Now that your fingers are in position, move them in a soft, circular motion to help relieve the pain. Massage your jaw muscles for 5 to 10 minutes at a time.

Shelling walnuts with a hammer. Avoid hard foods like nuts to alleviate TMJ pain.

Image CC0, by marijana1, via Pixabay

Avoid certain activities

If you want to minimize the pain you feel in your jaw, be sure you are not engaging in activities that make your pain worse.

Chewing gum, clenching your jaw, and even using your shoulder and your jaw to hold or cradle your phone when you’re speaking on the phone can all exacerbate your pain and make it worse.

Dentist in clinic scrubs to help someone with TMJ pain

Image CC0 by Free-Photos, via Pixabay

See your dentist

If you find you can’t reduce your jaw pain using any of the above techniques, you might have a more serious injury that requires medical treatment.

Your dentist can serve as your TMJ specialist and provide a diagnosis and follow up. They’ll also provide you with TMJ pain treatment after finding the cause of your problem.

During the exam, your dental care provider will offer advice for reducing pain after they ask you a few questions. Some of the things they will ask you about include:

  • Record your medical history
  • Ask when the pain started
  • Find out if you suffered any trauma to your jaw
  • Listen to your jaw
  • Feel your jaw as you open and close your mouth
  • Check your range of motion
  • Use touch to discern areas of discomfort in and around the jaw

TMJ Pain Treatment

Depending on what your dentist finds during this appointment, they might suggest specific types of treatment for TMJ discomfort.

  • Prescription medications
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

In more serious situations, your dentist might even suggest the use of oral splints or mouth guards to keep the pain at bay.

If your pain results from excessive teeth grinding or clenching, mouth guards or oral splints can stop this from occurring and making your pain worse.

TMJ physical therapy

Your dentist may also suggest physical therapy to help you strengthen your jaw muscles if your TMJ pain does not subside.

TMJ exercises

They may also provide you with a link to a TMJ exercises PDF you can download and perform at home.

Surgery for TMJ Pain

TMJ surgery procedures are usually not the first method of treatment your dentist will suggest. However, there are a few serious situations when they might recommend it.

Some types of TMJ surgery include arthrocentesis, TMJ arthroscopy, open joint surgery, or modified condylotomy.

Your doctor may also suggest steroid injections for your TMJ pain, depending on the type of pain, the seriousness of your pain, and their determination of its cause.

Reducing TMJ Pain for Good

TMJ pain can range from mild to severe, but there’s no need to live with the pain when reducing it can prove to be quite simple.

Start with OTC pain relievers and go from there. Rest, massage, and heat can often alleviate your symptoms. If nighttime TMJ discomfort leaves you sleepless, changing your position or pillow can provide some relief. Reducing stress and giving your jaw a break from hard foods can also help.

The great news about TMJ is that most people can treat the pain at home without any medical assistance. Pain may come or go, depending on the cause of your jaw pain. But, you should be able to treat it yourself whenever you notice pain coming on easily.

However, don’t rule out speaking to your dentist for long-term pain relief. And if these simple TMJ home treatment methods fail to relieve the pain in your jaw, call your dentist. You might have a more serious case of TMJ that requires more intensive treatment.

And if another health condition causes your TMJ pain, your dentist can provide a referral for the correct specialist for diagnosis and treatment.

Do you suspect you’re suffering from TMJ associated pain? Leave Your Caring Dentist Group a comment here or make an appointment. We’re here for you.

Featured Image: CC0, by senivpetro, via Freepik

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