Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJD), Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

TMJD is a problem in the joint where the jawbone meets the skull. Clicking, popping, pain, and a clenched jaw are all signs of TMJD.

Doctors don't always know how to cure TMJD, but they do have many ways to treat the symptoms.

What Are Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJD)?

Doctors define TMJD as pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint.

It's a common problem that affects up to 12 million adults in the U.S. each year. More women than men get TMJD, but doctors aren't sure why.

The temporomandibular joints are in front of each ear. Sometimes, the muscles that control the jaw become tense. This tension can disrupt how the jaw moves.

TMJD may go away on its own without treatment.

For some people, it's a mild issue that comes and goes throughout their lifetime. For others, it can be a debilitating problem that requires treatment.

What Causes TMJD?

Doctors don't often know what causes TMJD.

It may stem from an injury or infection of the jaw area.

Other factors that may cause TMJD are:

What Are the Risk Factors and Complications of TMJD?

Although doctors can't always pin down the cause of TMJD, risk factors include having:

  • Dental work where the mouth is open for a long time.
  • A breathing tube during surgery.
  • An autoimmune disease.
  • A prior infection or injury to the jaw.
  • Arthritis.
  • High levels of stress.
  • Neck pain.
  • Trauma (such as from a car accident).
  • Poor posture.

Complications of TMJD can include:

  • Chronic pain.
  • Depression.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Anxiety.

What Are the Symptoms of Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJD)?

TMJD symptoms can be mild or severe

They may occur for a while and go away on their own with no treatment. Or they may worsen as time goes on.

If you think you have TMJD, it's vital to see a doctor. Early treatment can help ease pain and stiffness in the jaw.

TMJD symptoms include pain:

  • In the jaw joint.
  • When you chew.
  • That moves from the jaw into the face and neck.

You may also have:

  • Painful clicking, popping, or grating in the jaw when you open or close your mouth.
  • Changes in the way your top and bottom teeth fit together.
  • Ringing in your ears.
  • A feeling of fullness in your ears.
  • Loss of hearing.

One note: Clicking or popping noises in the jaw without pain aren't TMJD, so there's no cause for concern.

How Do You Diagnose Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMJD)?

There's not a single test for TMJD.

Your doctor may run tests to rule out other causes of jaw pain, such as:

  • Sinus or ear infections.
  • Headaches.
  • Facial nerve problems.

To diagnose TMJD, your doctor may:

  • Ask about your medical and dental history.
  • Do an exam of your head, neck, face, and jaw.
  • Order imaging tests such as an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan.

How Do You Treat Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJD)?

At UPMC, we offer different types of TMJD treatments.

Your treatment will depend on your issue. We always start with the simplest, most conservative treatments.

Self-care at home

Your doctor may suggest starting with self-care treatments at home. For many people, this is enough to ease their symptoms.

When TMJD symptoms flare up, your doctor may suggest:

  • Eating soft foods.
  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Ibuprofin.
  • Switching between ice packs and heat to the jaw.
  • Using relaxation techniques.
  • Learning to manage stress.
  • Avoiding movements where your mouth is wide open, like wide yawning or singing.

Physical therapy to treat TMJD

If self-care treatments don't help your TMJD, physical therapy may be the answer.

The experts at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute can help ease pain and restore normal jaw movement.

The goals of physical therapy for TMJD are to:

  • Strengthen the jaw.
  • Promote flexibility in the jaw.
  • Restore your jaw's range of motion.
  • Improve blood flow in the jaw.
  • Ease pain and muscle tension in the jaw.
  • Correct posture and how your jaw aligns.

Physical therapy for TMJD includes exercises to strengthen your jaw muscles and improve range of motion in the jaw.

Our physical therapists may also use:

  • Heat and ice to improve circulation, ease swelling, and relieve pain.
  • Trigger point massage to relieve muscle tension.
  • Exercises to improve your posture.
  • Meditation and other relaxation techniques.
  • Acupuncture, which may relieve stress.
  • Moving the jaw joint to release scar tissue.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a mild electric current that may bring relief.
  • Ultrasound to improve circulation and reduce pain and swelling.

Temporomandibular joint surgery and other TMJD treatments

Home treatments and physical therapy are often enough to ease the pain of TMJD.

If those treatments don't help, your doctor may suggest other options like:

  • Pain medicine or muscle relaxers.
  • A dental splint, or nightguard. This device fits over the teeth, and you wear it at night. It can help ease muscle tension and make your jaw stable without changing your bite.
  • Surgery is a last resort for TMJD. Most doctors want to avoid treatments that permanently change your jaw. Your doctor will only suggest surgery if you have severe pain or trouble opening your mouth.