Is Your Jaw Becoming A Pain?

by Dr. Edmond Suh // July - August - September 2022

If you’ve been to the dentist because of ongoing “popping” in your jaw, you may have been diagnosed with TMJ disorder. TMJ, short for temporomandibular joint, is a disorder that ranges from annoying and uncomfortable to severely painful. It sounds scary, but for most people, this condition is a short-term one that goes away with rest and treatment.

What Does it Mean to Have TMJ?

Before I delve into what it means to be diagnosed with TMJ, let’s look at the body parts it involves. Your temporomandibular joint is the part that acts as a hinge to connect the temporal bones in your skull to your jaw. It’s a complex joint that functions with a wide range of motion.

Think about all the ways you can move your jaw. The temporomandibular joint is responsible for the way you move your mouth and jaw forward and backward and side-to-side. To be able to make all these complicated movements, like talking, chewing, and yawning, the joint must be aligned perfectly with the bones. Any time it is even slightly off, you are going to feel that popping sensation you noticed. When this doesn’t go away right away, it could be a sign of a temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD. TMD is the correct name for the problem, but many people call it TMJ after the joint that is affected.

Causes of TMJ

The biggest question after being given this diagnosis is, “Does TMJ go away?” The answer isn’t black or white, though. It depends on the cause for your symptoms.

Although we don’t know exactly what causes TMJ, we do know that it all stems from the joint itself. TMJ is a common side effect seen after a trauma to the jaw or to the side of the head. With this type of injury, symptoms are frequently moderate to severe.

Other cases of TMJ start out as annoying or mild discomfort. They seemingly appear out of nowhere, but are usually the result of damage to the joint from an ongoing habit. Grinding or clenching your teeth or chewing gum are frequently the reason your jaw starts popping.

What’s happening is that your facial muscles attached to the joint are overworked and are tightening up. This is painful enough, but if it continues, the problem gets worse. There is a little disc made out of cartilage that sits between the bones and the TMJ to protect the joint. Over time and with too much pressure, this disc gets damaged.

When TMJ is a result of overuse, it can go away on its own if you are careful about how you move your jaw and allow it to rest. A mouthguard custom made for you can help with clenching and grinding. Stopping your gum chewing habit for a little while (or permanently) gives your jaw time to rest and heal.

But sometimes the cause of TMJ is an underlying medical condition and your jaw pain is one of the symptoms. If your TMJ symptoms go on for longer than one week and you’ve been trying to rest your jaw, touch base with your dentist to determine if there is something simple, like clenching, going on, or if there is a more complicated medical issue.

Some medical reasons why your TMJ might be acting up include:
– Arthritis, specifically rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, conditions that naturally cause inflammation and joint pain;
– Sleep apnea, a treatable but serious condition in which your airway can become obstructed when you sleep and your jaw and neck clench down to prevent this from happening;
– Myofascial pain syndrome, a disorder in which the individual has chronic pain in certain muscles, such as the facial ones connected to the jaw;
– Infections in the salivary glands, usually easily noticed because the patient will also have other symptoms, such as swelling, facial pain, and dry mouth.

Dr. Edmond Suh

Owner of Supremia Dentistry, located at 1711 S. Main St. in Wake Forest.