Do you often hear clicking or popping sounds coming from your jaw, does your jaw lock in place, or does it hurt when you move it? These symptoms can sometimes be temporary and go away by themselves, but they could also be signs of a more serious problem with the functioning of your jaw joints.
Known as temporomandibular disorder (TMD) or temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD), dysfunction of the jaw joints is fairly common. It's estimated to affect around 30 percent of people at some point in their lives to different degrees.
If you think you might have a TMJ disorder, you should make an appointment with your dentist or doctor. They can discuss your symptoms and recommend treatments that could help to restore your normal jaw function.
What is TMJ dysfunction?
The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) connect the lower jaw (mandible) to the temporal bone of the skull. There are two of these joints, one on each side of the head, located just in front of the ears.
The TMJ enable jaw movements for eating, speaking, yawning and other actions. The bones of the joints are connected by a soft disc of cartilage that acts as a hinge to open, close and move the jaw. It also absorbs shocks and prevents friction.
If these joints are injured or put under pressure, their function is impaired. Jaw movements may be limited and you may hear unusual sounds or experience other symptoms.
What are the signs of TMD?
Jaw problems aren't always related to TMD, but you may have the condition if you have some of the following symptoms:
- clicking, popping or grating sounds when you chew or open your mouth
- difficulty opening or closing your mouth
- pain or discomfort when using your jaw
- pain or tenderness in your jaw, face, head, neck or in front of your ears
- swelling in your face
- your teeth don't come together normally
Sounds coming from the jaw might not be a sign of TMJ if you don't have pain or limited movement, but it's still a good idea to see your dentist or doctor to get a professional diagnosis.
What causes TMJ problems?
TMJ disorders can happen for many reasons, and it's not always possible to identify the cause. However, your dentist or doctor will try to narrow it down so they can work on treating the source rather than the symptoms alone.
Women are more likely to suffer from TMJ issues than men, but these conditions can affect people of all ages and genders. You're also more likely to have TMD if you have a family history of jaw problems.
Following are the most common causes of TMD. It's common for the cause to be a combination of reasons, which should each be addressed to relieve pain and restore normal jaw function.
Dental or orthodontic issues
If you have a misaligned bite (malocclusion), such as overbite or underbite, this can put strain on the jaw joints and lead to TMD symptoms such as a popping or clicking jaw.
A bite may also become uneven if a tooth gets chipped or wears down, or if you have dental work such as fillings, crowns or veneers that were built too long or too short.
Cartilage in the TMJ joints may be damaged by joint diseases such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Other health problems may also affect joint functioning, including fibromyalgia, gout or an infection or tumour in the mouth.
Overuse of the jaw joints
Putting too much pressure on the TMJ joints can cause wear and tear, which may be temporary or cause permanent damage. Activities that can strain the jaws include:
- frequently chewing gum
- biting your fingernails and other hard objects
- chewing the inside of your cheeks or lips
- opening your mouth too wide, such as when yawning
Teeth grinding or clenching
If you unintentionally grind or clench your teeth (a condition called bruxism), either when sleeping or during the day, this can also put pressure on your jaws and increase your risk of TMD.
Bruxism may be caused by feelings of stress, anxiety or frustration, or it may have a physical cause, such as an uneven bite.
Physical trauma to the jaw can damage the bones and cartilage in the joints, leading to TMD symptoms such as clicking and popping. Common reasons for jaw injuries include:
- sporting injuries
- road traffic accidents
- trips and falls
- physical confrontations
If your jaw is broken or dislocated in an accident, or you're worried about other damage, you should contact an emergency dentist or go to your nearest emergency room.
Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a common sleep disorder that happens when the airways get blocked during the night, causing sleepers to wake up choking, gasping or snoring loudly. Jaw popping and other TMD symptoms can be side effects of OSA.
Sleep apnoea can put your health and wellbeing at serious risk and is linked to a number of chronic diseases, so it's important to get a diagnosis and discuss treatments if you think you might have it.
Treatment for TMJ disorders
TMJ treatment can vary for each individual, as treatment recommendations are based on what's likely to be causing the problem.
To make a diagnosis, your dentist or doctor may ask you about the symptoms you're experiencing, your medical history and other factors. They may also take an x-ray, CT or MRI scan so they can inspect the jaw joints for signs of damage.
When they're confident that they've identified one or more causes of TMD or another condition, they can develop an appropriate treatment plan. Depending on your case, this may include any of the following.
If there's no serious underlying problem, jaw pain, clicking and other TMJ symptoms may fade without treatment, but you don't have to suffer in the meantime. Your dentist or doctor may recommend ways to relieve discomfort and help your jaw joints to relax, such as:
- avoiding hard, crunchy or chewy foods
- cutting food into bite-sized pieces
- not using chewing gum
- not grinding or clenching your teeth
- not opening your mouth too wide
- placing an ice pack or cold compress over the affected joint
If your TMJ may be related to stress or other psychological causes, your dentist may refer you to a counselling service or discuss relaxation methods, such as breathing exercises you can try at home or relaxation massage.
If your jaw muscles are weak, working on strengthening them with regular exercises could help to ease TMJ symptoms. This should be done with guidance from your dentist or doctor, as overworking the jaw muscles could potentially make your symptoms worse.
There's no specific medication to treat TMD, but medication could be useful for managing your symptoms or treating the underlying cause.
Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication could help you to manage TMJ pain and discomfort. Your dentist or doctor may also recommend a muscle relaxant if they think this might help.
If your TMD may be linked to a health condition, you should continue with your course of treatment, as the symptoms may fade over time.
If you're diagnosed with bruxism, treating this condition could also relieve TMJ symptoms. Depending on what's causing you to grind or clench your teeth, treatment could involve:
- dental or orthodontic procedures to bring the teeth into alignment
- trying to avoid stressful situations
- wearing a bruxism mouthguard at night to stop your teeth from touching
Sleep apnoea treatment
If your TMD may be due to obstructive sleep apnoea, an overnight sleep study may be needed to diagnose the nature of the disorder and determine the most suitable treatment. This may include:
- getting into a good night time routine
- losing weight
- avoiding alcohol
- continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy
- surgery to remove the airway obstruction
Jaw surgery may be recommended for more chronic cases of TMD, but this is rare. Your surgeon will make sure you understand the risk of complications, so you can decide if this is the right option for you.
Surgery may also be needed to treat injuries to the jaw or joints that may be causing TMJ.
Find out more about TMJ treatment in Sydney
Do you think you might have TMJ disorder and want to discuss treatments? Contact our dentists in Sydney to arrange a consultation so we can diagnose your jaw problem and develop your personalised treatment plan.
Healthdirect. Temporomandibular joint disorder [Online] 2017 [Accessed December 2019] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/temporomandibular-joint-disorder
Healthdirect. Teeth grinding [Online] 2018 [Accessed December 2019] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/teeth-grinding
Healthdirect. Sleep apnoea [Online] 2017 [Accessed December 2019] Available from: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sleep-apnoea