TMJ disorders are a group of conditions that cause pain in and around the jaw joint (called the Temporomandibular Joint or TMJ) and nearby muscles. Jaw problems affect a person’s ability to speak, eat, chew, swallow, make facial expressions, and even breathe. Approximately 10% of the population suffers from TMJ disorders, 90 percent of those most severely affected with chronic TMJ pain and dysfunction are women ranging from the teens years into their 50s.
Not all causes are known. Some possible causes are injuries to the jaw area, various forms of arthritis, some dental treatments, your genes and/or hormones, an infection, and auto-immune diseases. Research has shown that TMJ patients can also be hypersentive to pain, which may explain why they may also have other chronic pain conditions.
Since most common jaw joint and muscle problems are temporary, lasting only weeks or months, simple care, such as hot or cold compresses and over-the-counter medications, is all that is usually needed to relieve the discomfort. Avoid treatments that can cause permanent changes in the bite or jaw. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health, TMJ treatments should be reversible whenever possible. That means that the treatment should not cause permanent changes to the jaw or teeth. Examples of reversible treatments are:
• Over-the-counter pain medications
• Prescription medications
• Gentle jaw stretching and relaxation exercises
• Stabilization splints (biteplate, nightguard) are the most widely used treatments for TMJ disorders. Studies of their effectiveness in providing pain relief, however, have been inconclusive. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research also states that irreversible treatments have not been proven to work and may make the problem worse. Examples of irreversible treatments are:
• Adjustment of the bite by grinding the teeth
• Extensive dental work
• Mandibular repositioning splint (changes the bite and jaw positioning)
• Surgical procedures including replacement of all or parts of the jaw joint
Complex cases involve chronic and severe pain and jaw dysfunction. Such patients are best treated by a team of specialists in such fields as neurology, rheumatology, pain management – all working together to develop an integrated care program.