Painful Clicking Jaw? Temporomandibular Disorder and Jaw Pain

Do you experience frequent pain in your jaw? Do you hear frequent clicking or popping noises when opening and closing your mouth? You may be suffering from a condition known as Temporomandibular Disorder.

Do you experience frequent pain in your jaw? Do you hear frequent clicking or popping noises when opening and closing your mouth? You may be suffering from a condition known as Temporomandibular Disorder, or TMD. TMD is a group of complex problems that are related to the jaw joint and can lead to significant chronic pain if left untreated. Proper diagnosis is essential in order to effectively treat it, relieve symptoms, and restore your quality of life. In this blog post we will explore what exactly TMD encompasses, why it happens, how to diagnose it accurately and discuss some potential treatment options available.

What is the temporomandibular joint?

The temporomandibular joints (TMJ) are the two joints that connect the lower jaw to the skull. These are complex joints that, along with muscles, allow the jaw to move up and down, side to side and forward and back. Normal function relies on proper alignment of the bones, ligaments, muscles and discs, allowing smooth movement. The disc inside the TMJ allows the bones of the jaw and skull to slide over each other.

What is temporomandibular disorder (TMD)?

Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) is a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which is the joint that connects the lower jaw to the skull. This condition can affect people of all ages, but it is most commonly seen in adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

Myofascial pain is the most common form of TMD. It results in pain in the muscles or fascia (connective tissue over the muscles) that control jaw, neck and shoulder function.

A disorder of the joint itself includes problems with the position of the disc inside the joint (internal derangement), or injury to the condyle (part of the jaw bone that moves against the skull base).

Finally, arthritis or degenerative joint disease can be the cause of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of TMD and jaw pain associated with it

Contrary to popular belief, TMD affects more than just the jaw; it can cause a wide array of uncomfortable physical sensations including:

Persistent headaches

  • Popping noises when chewing or yawning
  • Pain in the facial muscles
  • Soreness or tenderness around the ears
  • Difficulty opening and closing the mouth
  • Tinnitus and earache
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Dizziness

It’s important to be aware of these symptoms as they could signal possible TMD. Ignoring them may make your jaw pain worse over time which can have serious implications for your quality of life.

Causes of TMD

Injury to the jaw or temporomandibular joint can lead to some TMDs, but in most cases, the exact cause is not clear. For many people, symptoms seem to start without obvious reason. Some people with jaw pain have a tendency to grind or clench their teeth (bruxism). Recent research suggests a combination of genes, psychological and life stressors, and how someone perceives pain, may play a part in why a TMD starts and whether it will be long lasting.

How to diagnose TMD and jaw pain, and the role of MRI

Diagnosing temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and jaw pain can often be a complex process. Your doctor or dentist will examine your range of jaw movement, listen for any clicking sounds, and assess any trigger points of pain in the muscles. They may ask for an x-ray of the jaw to look for any problem with the jaw bones (especially if there has been previous trauma).

An MRI scan is a specialised test to look at the internal structure of the TMJ. It can look for evidence of inflammation such as fluid within the joint space, or arthritis. It will show the position of the disc within the TMJ that allows the bones to move against each other, and will tell you if the disc has slipped in position and if it clicks back into position when you open your mouth. A dynamic scan is also performed, to see how well the jaw bone moves when you open your mouth.

How to treat TMD and jaw pain

Treating TMD (Temporomandibular Disorder) and jaw pain can feel like a daunting task, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be. With a combination of physical therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes, you can take control of your life by managing your jaw pain. Physical therapy can help ease the tension in the muscles around the jaw joint, while medications such as muscle relaxants or pain relievers can help to make existing pain more bearable. Ice and hot packs can give relief. Additionally, making simple lifestyle changes such as avoiding crunchy foods or hard food can also help to reduce strain on the temporomandibular joint. Some people find that measures to reduce stress or behavioural therapies can have a positive impact, such as meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture or TENS are used by some people although evidence of their success is limited.

Occasionally the symptoms are severe enough to consider consulting a specialist maxillofacial surgeon, who can go through more invasive or surgical options.

When to seek medical help for TMD and jaw pain

When it comes to TMD and jaw pain, knowing when to seek medical help is important. Clicking or popping of the jaw without pain is relatively common and does not require treatment. Symptoms like jaw or facial pain and earache, particularly if it affects your sleep, are good reasons to see your doctor. Additionally, stiffness or difficulty opening and closing the mouth can indicate that there may be a problem with the internal structures of the joint itself. Consulting with a specialist about recurrent discomfort can help diagnose the root cause of your TMD or jaw pain, which then can be managed accordingly with a tailored treatment plan.

Temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and associated jaw pain can affect anyone, at any age. From the symptoms to the treatments, it is important to understand this condition and how it can be managed. Though physical therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes are helpful tools for treating TMD and jaw pain, everyone should be aware of when to seek medical help for more severe cases. To make sure that your doctor can correctly diagnose your TMD, investing in an MRI scan that is read by an experienced radiologist is one of the first steps that you can take in order to begin your treatment plan. So if you believe you may suffer from TMD, do not delay in seeking help – your health is paramount!

Dr. Sarah Laporte

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