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

TMJ pain is not unique to any specific person, but it’s serious pain for many. 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 cannot open or close our 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 touching the aching jaw

TMJ pain can come and go, or it can stick around and make life very uncomfortable. TMJ pain is caused by many factors, and it might not always be the same pain 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 pain and your health.

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

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

If you hear a clicking sound when you open or close your jaw, it’s not uncommon. However, as long as there is no pain accompanying the clicking sound, you need not to worry about seeking treatment for TMJ. The clicking is natural, and it might happen on occasion.

What Causes TMJ Pain?

3d skeleton of jaw

Your TMJ 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. If something happens to one of the hinges, the door may not open properly if it opens at all. Your jaw bones work the same way. The TMJ is a joint covered by cartilage, and there is a small disk that separates bones to help eliminate shock to provide a seamless open and close. This all works together to mean that TMJ is caused by one of these things.

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

Sometimes, however, there is no clear reason your TMJ pain is present. It can happen because of any small trauma or situation, and it’s not always obvious what happened to cause your pain and discomfort.

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 TMJ pain, you can use any of the following methods to lessen the pain before making the decision to see your medical professional.

taking a medicine

Use Pain Relievers

If you TMJ 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 TMJ pain. This type of medication relieves the pain you feel by reducing any swelling caused by the issue at hand.

Use Moist 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 when you deal with TMJ.

Woman holding a bowl of soup

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. This isn’t a lifestyle change you must live with for longer than just a few days. The pain in your jaw is more likely to stop when 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 a minor injury.

woman sleeping while smiling

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 of the 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. This can help you sleep better, which can also make you feel better.

woman having face massage

Massage Your Jaw

You can use massage therapy to help relieve the pain from TMJ. 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 too much 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.

candies and gums

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 are speaking to someone can all exacerbate your pain and make it worse.

dentist treating her patient

See Your Doctor

If you cannot lessen the pain from TMJ using any of these techniques, you might have a more serious injury that requires medical treatment. Your doctor can provide a diagnosis and follow up with a treatment plan when you make an appointment. During the exam, your doctor will provide you with advice after asking questions. He or she will also perform the following procedures:

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

Depending on what your doctor finds during this appointment, he or she might suggest specific types of treatment.

  • Prescription medications
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Tricyclic antidepressants

In more serious situations, your doctor 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. Your doctor may also suggest physical therapy to help you strengthen your jaw muscles if your TMJ pain does not subside.

Surgical procedures are not the first method of treatment your doctor will suggest, but there are some serious situations when this does occur. Arthrocentesis, injections, arthroscopy, open joint surgery, or modified condylotomy might be suggestions your doctor makes depending on the type of pain, the seriousness of your pain, and the diagnosis they come up with.

Conclusion

TMJ pain can range from mild to severe, and the way to lessen the pain is simple. Start with pain relievers and go from there. If the simple methods of pain relief fail to relieve the pain you feel in your jaw, call your doctor. You might have a more serious case of TMJ that requires more extensive treatment. However, 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 TMJ pain, but it should be easily remedied anytime you notice it coming on. If you start treatment right away, you increase your chances of relieving the pain without medical help but don't rule out speaking to your doctor for long-term pain relief. 

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