Surviving TMJ In Summer

by Dr. Edmond Suh // July - August - September 2023

Summer is a favorite time of year for many people, but for others, it can be difficult to enjoy all that the season has to offer – specifically, those who suffer from temporomandibular joint pain, commonly known as TMJ.

TMJ, that ongoing “popping” in your jaw, is a disorder – usually a short-term one that goes away with rest and treatment – that affects the joint that acts as a hinge connecting the skull’s temporal bones to the jaw. It’s a complex joint that functions with a wide range of motion and is responsible for the way the mouth and jaw move forward, backward, and side-to-side. To complete complicated movements, like talking, chewing, and yawning, the joint must be aligned perfectly with the bones. Any time it’s even slightly off, you are going to feel the aforementioned popping sensation. If this phenomenon doesn’t go away for you quickly, it could be a sign of a temporomandibular joint disorder, or TMD. (TMD is the accurate name for the problem, but many people refer to it as TMJ for the affected joint.)

While TMJ discomfort ranges from annoying and uncomfortable to severely painful any time of year, the warm summer months often tend to exacerbate symptoms as temperatures rise and the barometric pressure changes. What can you do to survive TMJ pain in the upcoming sizzling season?

Keep Warm. Imagine the sensation of feeling cold tense muscles, shivering, etc. Heat can provide the opposite effect, soothing and relaxing muscles (e.g. heating pads and warm baths for sore muscles). Joints like the temporomandibular tend to loosen in warm, humid weather. Make the most of North Carolina’s sweltering summer temperatures by participating in muscle-relaxing outdoor activities such as swimming, biking, open-air yoga, and walking.

Stay Hydrated. As the days heat up, it is easy to become dehydrated. Lack of water is harmful to all body systems, including your joints (ahem, the jaw joint!). Be diligent in drinking lots of water and limiting sugary beverages. Also, try to reduce your caffeine consumption, as caffeine can induce jitters and anxious feelings, leading to unintentional teeth clenching or grinding that exacerbates TMJ discomfort.

Minimize Stress. While it’s easier said than done, focus on minimizing your stress levels this summer. Stress frequently manifests in physical tension, such as teeth grinding and jaw clenching – and we may not even know we have these habits that cause TMJ pain. When you clench or grind your teeth, your facial muscles attached to the jaw joint are overworked and tighten up. This alone is painful enough, but if it continues, the problem only gets worse. A little disc of cartilage sits between facial bones and the TMJ to protect the joint. Over time and with too much pressure, this disc can become damaged. Small steps to reduce your stress levels, such as relaxing on your porch after a long day at the computer or incorporating low-intensity workouts into your routine to release endorphins and keep your body moving, can be beneficial in improving not just your TMJ pain, but your overall health.

Be Cognizant of What You Eat. Avoid chewing gum to reduce excessive use of the joint and muscle and give them a chance to rest. Stay away from hard foods and candies, as they are tough on the jaw. Additionally, limit chewy summer staples such as grilled steaks and corn on the cob. Most of the time, these foods require a lot of chewing or broad opening of the mouth, and therefore add stress to the jaw. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fun summertime cookout with friends and family – simply consume substitutions like soft and tender barbecue or cut the corn off the cob. Take advantage of summer’s harvest by enjoying fresh fruits like melons and berries that are abundant this time of year, skipping the crunchy apples and raw veggies (such as carrots). Instead, eat your veggies grilled or cooked, or toss them in a cool summertime smoothie.

While these small-scale lifestyle changes can help alleviate TMJ discomfort during the summer months and periods of rest can help it go away on its own, it’s important to know that sometimes the cause of TMJ is an underlying medical condition. If your TMJ symptoms persist for longer than one week and you’ve been trying the aforementioned measures without signs of improvement, schedule an appointment with your dentist to determine if the issue is simple (such as clenching), or if a more complicated medical issue may exist. 

Dr. Edmond Suh

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