If you’ve found yourself asking, “what does it mean when your jaw joint hurts?” chances are you’ve stumbled across the term temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction. Also known as TMJ disorder or TMJ syndrome, this painful condition is one of the most common causes of chronic jaw joint pain. While TMJ disorders are fairly common and easy to treat, they have many different possible causes. This can make it difficult to get a proper diagnosis, which can prolong your jaw pain. Below, we’ll take a look a TMJ syndrome, and help you answer the question, “what does it mean when your jaw joint hurts?” once and for all.
What Is TMJ Syndrome?
When you talk about why your jaw joint hurts, you’re most likely talking about the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). This is the joint that connects your mandible (the lower jaw) to your skull. The joint can be found on both sides of your head, directly in front of the ears. The joint is responsible for allowing your jaw to open and close, which aids in speaking and eating.
While the abbreviation “TMJ” is used to refer to the joint itself, the abbreviation is more commonly used to describe a group of health conditions related to your jaw. That said, in recent years these conditions are becoming more commonly abbreviated as “TMD” or “TMJD” to distinguish between the temporomandibular joint itself from TMJ-related disorders.
TMJ disorders can cause a wide range of symptoms. Typically, people with TMJ disorders suffer from:
- Tenderness or pain in the jaw joint
- Facial pain
- Difficulty moving the jaw joint
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, more than 10 million Americans suffer from TMJ-related disorders or pain. While these conditions are fairly common, they can be difficult to diagnose, as they can be caused by a wide range of factors. This can also make it difficult to determine whether or not your symptoms are TMJ-related.
Next, we’ll take a closer look at the symptoms of TMJ disorders, and how you can tell them apart from other jaw-related conditions.
What Does It Mean When Your Jaw Joint Hurts? Symptoms of TMJ Disorders
The symptoms of TMJ disorders can vary widely depending on the severity of your condition, what causes it, and several other factors. As the name would suggest, the most common symptom of TMJ disorders is jaw pain or tenderness in the surrounding facial muscles.
While pain in the jaw might be enough to diagnose TMJ syndrome for some, for others, the condition can cause other, more subtle symptoms. Some of those may include:
- Locking of the jaw
- Limited movement of the jaw
- Pain in the face or neck
- Clicking or popping noises from the jaw joint area
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Frequent headaches
- Changes in the way the upper and lower teeth align (shift in the jaw)
Additionally, symptoms of TMJ syndrome may appear on just one side of the jaw or both.
What Causes TMJ Disorders?
As previously mentioned, TMJ disorders can be caused by many factors. Unfortunately, in many cases, the exact cause of TMJ disorders is unknown. Scientists believe that trauma to the jaw or other unexpected injuries may play a role. They also believe that several other health conditions may contribute to the development of TMJ disorders.
Some of these health conditions include:
- Grinding or clenching of the teeth
- Erosion or deterioration of the jaw joint
- Growth disorders
- Jaw issues present at birth
All of these conditions are believed to play a role in the development of TMJ disorders. If you have one or more of these, and you are suffering from symptoms of TMJ disorders, you may want to talk with your doctor.
Along with health conditions that are believed to cause TMJ disorders, there are several risk factors you should be aware of as well.
Risk Factors for TMJ Syndrome
While there are several risk factors that researchers have linked to TMJ disorders, they have yet to be declared a direct cause. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand these factors, as they could be an indicator of your susceptibility to developing TMJ disorders.
Some of these risk factors include:
- Poor posture that puts strain on the muscles of the neck and face
- Female hormones (while unclear, it’s theorized that estrogen may play a role in TMJ disorders)
- Prolonged periods of stress
- Joint hypermobility
Putting an End to Jaw Pain: Treating TMJ Disorders
There are several ways you can treat TMJ-related disorders and pain. These include treatments you can do from home such as regulating the foods you eat to medications that can provide more serious pain relief. Because TMJ disorders can have a variety of causes, they can require a variety of treatments.
Oftentimes, your doctor may recommend starting with at-home treatments first. This is because many of the medications and more complicated treatments have yet to be thoroughly studied, and need more research to be widely prescribed.
Treating TMJ Disorders from Home
In most instances, those with chronic jaw pain related to TMJ disorders have success with self-care practices. Some of these at-home treatments include the following:
- Avoiding harder foods, or foods that are difficult to chew
- Reduce stress
- Use ice to reduce swelling in the jaw
- Practice jaw-strengthening exercises
- Avoid chewing gum
These at-home techniques can help relieve pain caused by TMJ disorders, while also helping you strengthen your jaw muscles. Should at-home treatments not provide adequate relief, your doctor may prescribe medications to help with the pain.
Medications for TMJ Disorders
If your TMJ pain is not easily relieved with self-care techniques, medications are usually the next step. Several medications can help relieve TMJ pain, both over-the-counter and by prescription. These usually include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Muscle relaxers
- Local anesthetics
Your doctor can help you determine what medications are best for you, and which ones you may want to avoid.
Should medications not work, more invasive techniques may be required to alleviate TMJ pain.
If your symptoms don’t improve with any of the above-mentioned treatments, your doctor may recommend more serious measures. These can include less invasive techniques such as botox injections but can include more serious remedies such as surgery.
Botox injections are a fairly common treatment for more serious cases of TMJ disorders. Typically, these injections are done at painful trigger points of TMJ pain. While the evidence surrounding botox injections for TMJ disorder is still lacking, early results suggest it may help alleviate pain.
In very rare instances, your doctor may recommend surgery to treat your TMJ disorder.
These procedures can include things like:
- Corrective dental treatment to improve your bite and align your teeth
- Arthrocentesis, which removes fluid and debris from the joint
- Surgery to replace the joint
These procedures, in some instances, may make your symptoms worse. It’s always important to talk with your doctor about the potential risk associated with these procedures.
So, what does it mean when your jaw joint hurts? It could be a TMJ disorder. If you are living with any of the symptoms of TMJ-related disorders, or if you believe you may be at risk, talk with your doctor about your next steps.
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