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Understanding TMD: Condition Guide, Symptoms, and Frequently Asked Questions

A dental patient suffering from TMJ Disorders, or TMD

Are you feeling sudden locking, popping, stiffness, or soreness in your jaw? If so, you aren’t alone — experiencing these sorts of discomforts could be a sign that you’re one of the millions of people who suffer from temporomandibular joint disorders, or TMD. According to the National Institute of Health, this disorder affects between 5-12% of Americans, twice as many women as it does men, and more younger patients than older ones, which is unusual for chronic pain conditions.

While this type of joint dysfunction isn’t life-threatening, it can still be extremely detrimental to your quality of life. It is typically a byproduct of strain and trauma to the temporomandibular joints or muscles, which may result from bruxism (teeth grinding and bite clenching) or malocclusions (bite misalignment) that uncomfortably pull on the jaw.

Fortunately, you don’t have to grin and bear the condition that might be locking up your grin. If you have uncertainties surrounding this disorder, the possible problems caused by this disorder, and potential solutions to those problems, read on to put those uncertainties to rest.

What Are the Symptoms Of TMD?

If you experience any of the following symptoms, you could be suffering from a temporomandibular joint disorder:

  • Abrupt headaches
  • Tinnitus (ear ringing) and/or hearing loss
  • Sharp pain spreading behind the eyes, in the face, or upper body
  • Bruxism
  • Dizziness
  • Change in bite alignment and/or teeth enamel (cracking, chipping, flattening, etc.)
  • Limited mouth movement
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Jaw clicking, popping, or painfully “locking” in place
  • Overall jaw soreness or discomfort, most intense during the morning

It’s worth noting that the most intense bruxism clenching typically occurs during sleep, when you aren’t awake or conscious enough to help it. Risks of this clenching can also be intensified by family history, mental health conditions (particularly anxiety), and substance issues

Abusing stimulants (like caffeine, cocaine, and amphetamine) can overactivated the jaw muscles, and has been clinically linked to increased TMJ risk. In 2019, the Brazilian Research in Pediatric Dentistry journal observed that amphetamines in particular could amplify that risk over sixfold. 

We recommend wearing occlusal splint appliances, custom-made by an experienced dentist or orthodontist, to ease TMD strain and protect your teeth enamel from further damage. That said, it’s still important to take those underlying issues into account as well. A behavioral health professional specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy and/or addiction counseling could help you address those underlying stressors that might be worsening your TMD.

Where Does TMD Cause Pain?

TMJ disorders are commonly thought of as just affecting the jaw, teeth, and mouth. But just as its causes can be complicated and multifaceted, so can its symptoms. If you feel pain permeating through your entire face, that’s because the temporomandibular joint acts as a crucial “hinge” connecting your jawbone and skull, as pictured here:

With that in mind, it makes sense that severe cases of TMD would cause pain and trauma across both pieces joined by the hinge. This joint is also adjacent to the ears; swelling and inflammation can place extra pressure on the eustachian tube, which can constrict ear airflow and cause minor hearing loss. 

As this wear takes its toll on the jaw muscles, it can also place extra strain on the surrounding nerves, joints, and muscles. That’s how TMD pain and numbness can also arise in the neck, shoulders, and upper back, and in really severe cases, the arms and legs.

Will TMJ Go Away?

Mild TMD discomfort can usually disappear on its own without treatment. However, some people will suffer TMJ disorders so severe that they cause persistent, chronic, and long-term discomfort that seldom goes away by itself. A chronic TMJ disorder can afflict symptoms that may persist for months or years if left untreated.

The good news is that most of the damage caused by TMJ disorders, even in those severe cases, can be reversible. In a 2017 C&EO study of 112 patients with TMJ and hearing loss, 101 were able to improve their hearing, with the majority of those 101 (67 patients) fully recovering it. Moreover, if your TMJ is bruxism-related, occlusal guards can offer fast, effective relief for those symptoms, with hydrostatic guards relieving them in as soon as five minutes.

A chronic TMJ disorder could be straining your life now, but that doesn’t mean that it has to affect you for the rest of your life.

How Is TMJ Diagnosed?

An experienced doctor, dentist, or licensed orthodontist can diagnose TMJ disorders. Typically, they will do so by:

  • Asking you questions
  • Monitoring jaw motion
  • Listening to your jaw for clicking
  • Pressing around the jaw to identify discomfort spots
  • Taking diagnostic imaging (X-rays, CT scans, or MRI pictures)

Typically, the imaging occurs when the healthcare provider has reason to suspect a problem. Getting an inside look at the joint, jawbone, teeth, and surrounding tissues will them gain a better understanding of what may be causing your TMJ disorder. 

Once that is evaluated, the provider can then evaluate the best course(s) of action. 

Who Treats TMJ?

If your TMD diagnosis is determined to be related to bruxism or malocclusion, then it’s best that your core treatment is led by an experienced dentist or orthodontist. They will be able to determine the best night guard for your particular TMD diagnosis. They can infer whether that night guard should even be a “night” guard, or also worn during the day. 

While you can order over-the-counter occlusal guards, investing in a custom-fit appliance is your best bet for the most effective results. To create this custom fit occlusal guard, the dentist or orthodontist will typically:

  • Probe your diagnosis to determine the best type of occlusal guard
  • Measure TMD discomfort with a bite test, informing their occlusal guard choice
  • Use the shape of that bite to mold the custom fit (unless it’s a hydrostatic guard)
  • Discuss cleaning, next steps and additional treatment measures

Even with all of that said, it’s important that TMD treatment isn’t just a battle fought on one front. If you suspect behavioral or substance problems are contributing to your TMD, we highly recommend that you open up about them with a professional counselor. Also, if symptoms persist even with occlusal guard wear, we recommend easing severe TMD with the following self-care steps:

  • Pain medication (if necessary)
  • Physical jaw exercises
  • Diet changes (stick to soft, light foods that won’t cause joint tension)
  • Behavioral changes (avoiding possible stressors, bad habits, or substance use triggers)
  • Ice or hot packs applied to the jaw
  • Mental relaxation exercises

Your orthodontist or other providers can offer you useful, effective tools to treat TMJ disorders, but at the end of the day, the most important person in treating in TMD is the person actively putting these tools to use — you.