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What is Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ)?

TMJ stands for the temporomandibular joint, the little round joint that lies in front of your ear between the temporal bone (your cheek bone) and the mandible (your lower jaw.) Often people use the acronym “TMJ” to refer to temporomandibular joint dysfunction or disorder - that is, pain and stiffness in this joint and the muscles around it.

TMJ can cause a wide variety of symptoms related to the movement of the jaw. They can include earaches, headaches, an inability to open the mouth very far, painful clicking or popping noises when chewing or talking, and stiffness or pain in the jaw, face, or neck. Sometimes TMJ symptoms seem to go in cycles, getting better or going away for a while only to come back again. Symptoms can be mild and not very bothersome, or so persistent and painful as to be almost debilitating.

There can be many potential causes of TMJ. An injury or trauma to the jaw, arthritis, or grinding the teeth can all contribute to TMJ. The temporomandibular joint contains a small disc of cartilage that allows it to move smoothly, and this disc can become dislocated or torn. Sometimes the cause is unknown. There are no standard tests for TMJ, and it can be difficult to diagnose and treat.

Mild cases of TMJ may benefit from self-care such as eating soft foods, practicing stress management techniques, and applying ice packs to the jaw. NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen, can be purchased without a prescription and work to reduce pain and inflammation. Some dentists and occupational therapists can suggest stretching techniques for the jaw which may help relieve stiffness. More serious cases may require a form of splinting called a stabilization splint or bite plate, which helps reduce pressure on the joint. Extreme cases may benefit from arthroscopic surgery on the joint.